‘Suite’ is for die-hard Simon fans

There’s a funny battle being waged on the Onyx Theatre stage. In the play “California Suite” it’s love 1970s style in the signature Neil Simon way, and in a solid presentation by Off Strip Productions in association with Chaos Theatre Co. and Olde English Productions, it starts with solemn wordplay and ends in frenzied mayhem.

The show is a composite of four playlets that explore the relationships of four groups of visitors to the Beverly Hills Hotel. A different director takes charge of each playlet, fitting because the play deals with the differences between its characters. And while this approach leads to an uneveness in tone with the first act having a heavy start, it gradually gains momentum and lightens up.

The first playlet features a visitor from New York and is directed by Shane Cullum. Hannah (Kim Glover) has flown to Los Angeles to get her teenage daughter back from ex-husband Billy (Glenn Heath). Meant to illustrate the contrast between the two coasts with the uptight Hannah shooting verbal spears at the laid-back Billy, it’s an awkward meeting that’s not fully developed and seems under-rehearsed. Both Glover and Heath look their parts, but there is a chemistry and dynamic interplay that is missing. While Hannah’s sarcastic one-liners are meant to pierce with bitterness, Glover’s venom strikes the humble Heath too deeply, overwhelming him and the humor that shows vulnerability. Glover gives softness later, but it’s not enough for us.

Playlet No. 2 is directed by Jeremy Nino and involves a visitor from Philadelphia. Marvin (Shane Cullum) awakens in his suite to find Bunny (Olivia Hernandez) passed out drunkenly in his bed. He can’t get her up, and his wife, Millie (Tara Lynn), is on her way, having just flown in.

Marvin dashes about to keep Millie from discovering his indescretion, and the theme of man as eternal jerk and woman as dutiful wife comes to the fore. It’s an amusing bit, with Cullum giving fluster to Marvin and Lynn a nice contrast with a controlled Millie. But there is a tiny arc of sadness at the betrayal that could be further explored.

The third playlet, about visitors from London, is directed by Jason Nino and satisfies the most. Diana (Kellie Wright) and Sidney (Brian Scott) have arrived in Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards, as Diana has been nominated for a best actress Oscar. While preparing for the ceremony she’s a nervous wreck. She’s insecure about her looks but mostly about her marriage of convenience to the closeted Sidney, for whose love she yearns. Both Wright and Scott are perfectly droll, sharing a tender, witty rapport and excellent timing and delivery.

Directed by Gus Langley, the fourth playlet features the visitors from Chicago and is pure slapstick. Two couples take a trip that degenerates into the vacation from hell. A tennis match sparks a hysterical melee, and dialogue takes a backseat to commotion as Mort (Aaron Barry) and wife Beth (Madeline Angulo) duke it out with Stu (Jeremy Nino) and wife Gert (Olivia Hernandez) in an expertly choregraphed fight that makes the best of the cramped suite set by John Nino.

Reminiscent of the 1978 movie, die-hard Simon fans undoubtedly will appreciate this offering and the nostalgia it represents.

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