Backstage: Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’

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(Host) Bennington’s Oldcastle Theatre Company has just opened its production of Neil Simon’s, “The Dinner Party.” The play is about divorce. But it speaks to anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship.

VPR’s Susan Keese went Backstage in Bennington to find out more.

(Keese) The setting for Neil Simon’s, “The Dinner Party,” is a private room in an elegant French restaurant. A table is set for six. The guests arrive one by one: first Claude, an antique book dealer, then Albert – who’s a little odd, then Andre – a jetsetting business tycoon.

They’ve each received an invitation from a host who never appears in the play. The men have never met. But they soon discover that the man who invited them was the lawyer who handled each of their divorces. And that the remaining three guests – who arrive shortly – are their ex-wives. Their relationships are a little more complicated.

“Well aren’t you popular, Mariette? The only woman in the room and already you’ve met you’re ex-husband, your ex-lover and your next boyfriend.”
“I’m sorry but Andre never got to be my ex-lover, and Albert will never be my ex-boyfriend. But I’m delighted to have you as an ex hubby. As for me, I intend to be an ex-guest. I hope you and your friends have an exquisite evening. Excuse me won’t you?”

(Keese) As is typical of Simon’s plays, the banter is quick, intelligent and funny. Tony-winning Broadway actress Karen Ziemba plays Mariette in the Oldcastle production. Ziemba says there’s much more to this play than witty one-liners.

(Ziemba) “It really gets you deep into these people’s psyches and who they are and what their relationship is and why their relationship didn’t work out.”

(Keese) “The Dinner Party” is Simon’s most recent Broadway hit. Eric Peterson, Oldcastle’s producing artistic director, directs the play. He says “The Dinner Party” is Simon at the height – and emotional depth – of his virtuosity.

(Peterson) “This begins as a comedic mystery then becomes pretty much a full-blown comedy. Then it becomes a very touching, tender play about reconciliation, and is there the possibility of reconciliation. So in 90 minutes he takes the audience through a whole wealth of emotions.”

(Keese) Actor Paul Falzone says the play challenges the assumption that a marriage can ever really end.

(Falzone) “It’s about divorce, and in a much larger sense it’s about divorcing yourself from someone you’ve lived your life with. Even after you’re divorced – bomp – it’s legal. But in reality, can you divorce yourself entirely from that person that you lived with for all those years?”

(Keese) Falzone plays Andre, the cynical businessman confronted with his flamboyant ex, whom he’s written off as dead.

(Gabrielle) “No compliments, Andre? I had to push aside a big gravestone. Don’t you think I look stunning?”
(Andre) “When was stunning ever your problem? Not even a 20-foot marble mausoleum could stop you. You have your life back. In return, can I have the freedom the courts have already awarded me?”
(Gabrielle) “Just because they’re over generous doesn’t mean I have to be.”
(Andre) “It’s been two years Gabrielle, the relationship is long over. Put it to bed, won’t you?
(Gabrielle) “You first. I always liked crawling in after you warmed up the sheets.”
(Andre) “Can’t you take a simple divorce as a no?
(Gabrielle) “I’m not happy with the settlement.”
(Andre) “You’ve got half the company, what more do you want?”
(Gabrielle) “Keep the company. It’s the boss – I want. And the rest of our lives together that you promised me.”

(Keese) As the play progresses each couple reveals a secret about their marriage. They also divulge feelings they probably should have talked about before things went sour.

Peterson, the director, says you don’t have to be divorced to find something painfully familiar here.

(Peterson ) “It’s a very universal play. If you’ve ever had a strong relationship, you’ll understand an awful lot about what’s going on in this play.”

(Keese) After the audience stops laughing, Peterson says, they’re left with a lot to think about.

(Peterson) “And the next day and the day after that and a week later, they’re still thinking and talking about the play and, ‘Why do you suppose she did this?’ And, ‘Should they get back together or should they not get back together?” Question after question after question comes from what seemed, as you were watching it, like an interesting mystery and a very funny comedy.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese, Backstage in Bennington.

“The Dinner Party” runs through August 9 at Benningtons Oldcastle Theatre.

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