`London Suite' worth checking into in Bowie

Play: Despite a few acting pitfalls, the cast deftly handles Neil Simon's collection of comedies.

September 05, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Friday, 2nd Star opened its fall season with Neil Simon's 1995 play London Suite, a collection of four half-hour comic plays, which continue through Sept. 21 at Bowie Playhouse in Whitemarsh Park.

One of America's most successful playwrights has found a winning formula in his quartets of one-act plays filled with four groups of characters involved in different situations, connected only by having stayed in the same hotel suite, a device he used in Plaza Suite and California Suite.

In 2nd Star's production of London Suite, director Charles Maloney has assembled a cast that largely succeeds in delivering all the laughs of Simon's comedy, although some performances were a bit uneven on opening night.

The weakest segment comes first in "Settling Accounts." Suspecting that his life's savings has been stolen, a novelist, Brian, confronts his financial manager, Billy.

As Brian, Jack Degnan was unable to summon enough writer's angst to be convincing and to sharpen the comic contrast with Jerry Khatcheressian's Billy - a character in need of a bit more chutzpah than Khatcheressian exhibited.

Although these characters are largely unsympathetic, and the actors relegated to a single-note theme, this segment occasionally sparkles with one-liners.

In contrast, the two middle segments are full of endearing characters living their bittersweet lives with wisdom and panache. In "Going Home," we meet a 33-year-old woman revisiting London with her widowed mother, who commits her London stay to nonstop shopping to avoid facing what she has lost in her life.

As mother and daughter, Karen Eske and Michelle Rockwell illustrate ensemble playing at its finest, conveying all the affection, warmth, patience and support that define an adult daughter's relationship with her mother.

The strongest of the four small plays is "Diana and Sidney," where Simon returns to a fascinating couple that he introduced in California Suite, when Diana was an Oscar nominee and her bisexual husband searched in other directions for affection. Now, 20 years later in London, Diana is a highly successful, wealthy television actress traveling with her devoted servant, Grace, who disapproves of Diana's fortifying herself with vodka in preparation for her meeting with ex-husband Sidney.

As Diana, Heidi Toll conveys a complex of emotions reflecting her difficulties as an aging actress, her affection for her ex-husband, and her anger at his bisexuality. As Sidney, Dave O'Brien conveys his admiration and affection for Diana while gradually revealing his deep commitment to the man that he shares his life with in Mykonos. Together the actors build a complex, believable and loving relationship as Sidney's illness is gradually revealed.

In sharp contrast, the fourth segment, "The Man on the Floor," is pure slapstick performed by a skilled and athletic cast.

Mark (Cary Quintana) and his wife, Annie (Anna Zablotney), arrive at Suite 402, where they'll stay as they attend the tennis matches at Wimbledon. Soon Mark discovers that his precious Wimbledon tickets are lost. Annie leaves the suite for a cup of tea, and Mark is immediately stricken with severe back pain.

As the hotel physician Dr. McMerlin, Al Chopey proves a perfect foil for Quintana's antics. Zablotney, as the wife, takes no prisoners in her fury over the lost Wimbledon tickets, and Shannon Webber displays a graceful athleticism as the bellhop called upon to help Quintana's Mark reach the comfort of his hotel bed.

Throughout 2nd Star's production of London Suite, wit and slapstick combine to provide an entertaining evening packed with laughs and more than a little wisdom.

Tickets: 2nd Star's box office, 410-757-5700 or 301-858-7245.

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