Why do fools fall out of love?
That's the central question posed by Neil Simon's 31st and latest play, "The Dinner Party."
Part farce and part mystery, the play is unusual for Simon not only because of its hybrid form but also because of its shift in tone. Although "The Dinner Party" starts out as a laugh fest, it ends on a bittersweet note, rather like a meal that begins with dessert and ends with an entrM-ie so highly seasoned, it makes your eyes water.
The result, receiving an appealing East Coast premiere at Washington's Kennedy Center, may not be a major work, but it is highly enjoyable - a divertissement that, while light, leaves you pondering the complexities and perplexities of love and romance.
The plot concerns six people who are invited to a dinner party in the private dining room of an exclusive Paris restaurant (elegantly realized in John Lee Beatty's gilt-edged set). The host isn't present, and the guests have no idea why they have been called together. This conundrum is especially bothersome to the first guest to arrive, a rare book dealer named Claude who assigns himself the role of detective. Clues mount with the arrival of each subsequent guest.
When the second and third show up, they realize all three men have been clients of the same divorce attorney, who happens to be their unseen host. Claude concludes that the attorney is fixing them up with potential new spouses because he feels guilty that he couldn't save their marriages.
That solution is quickly discredited when the first woman to appear is Claude's ex-wife, a pattern that's repeated. Is the absent attorney trying to reunite the couples? Or is someone else behind this gathering? Before long, this posh dinner party threatens to turn into a no-holds-barred marriage therapy session.
Director John Rando deftly handles the play's tonal disparity. The initial humor stems from the characters' dissimilarities, particularly among the men. Besides Claude, played by John Ritter as a mixture of loquacious sleuth and bitter ex-spouse, there's Albert, the owner of a rental car business, played by Henry Winkler as an endearing nebbish, and Andre, a rich snob coldly depicted by Len Cariou with such an unrelenting cruel streak, it's difficult to believe he was ever married.
The laugh lines are swift and delightful in the early going, though some of the sight gags get old fast, especially those stemming from Albert's injured finger, an injury inexplicably sustained while tying a bow tie. On the other hand, even Winkler's posture is funny - his shoulders permanently slumped and his belly protruding just enough to make Albert's rented tuxedo appear more ill-fitting than it already it is. In terms of physical comedy, Winkler is well-matched with Veanne Cox as his gawky, insecure ex-wife, a woman who leaps around the stage like a dancing ostrich when she finally gets Albert to stop giving her the silent treatment.
The production's most shining performance is delivered by Penny Fuller as Gabrielle, a character whose identity can't fully be revealed without spoiling the plot. It can be said, however, that Gabrielle is responsible for altering the play's tone, a delicate task that she performs with such subtle skill, she not only pulls it off but engenders enormous empathy for a woman who's no saint.
Simon, who is himself three times divorced, has written about marriage and divorce many times before, in plays ranging from "Barefoot in the Park" to "The Odd Couple." But unlike some recent work - the "Brighton Beach" trilogy, or even "Proposals" - "The Dinner Party" feels less personal and more universal.
Indeed, enhancing that universality is the reason Simon has given for setting the play in Paris, although the foreign locale doesn't contribute significantly to the plot. Ritter has suggested his own explanation for the Parisian milieu. The actor claims that, unlike Americans, the French focus their lives on love.
That may be so, but these particular French characters seem awfully American. Or perhaps it's just that, like music, love - and apparently divorce - is a universal language.
"The Dinner Party'
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 16