Musical company

Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’ serves up delightful entertainment at the Vienna Theater Company

Considering he’s been married five times – twice to the same woman – American playwright Neil Simon knew a thing or two about marriage. For argument’s sake, let’s just say he knew even more about divorce.

Conceived over the winter of his career as a “farce turned comedy-drama” experiment, dinner pairs the familiar corn of the wisecracking icon with something much meatier. Centered around three groups of exes, it explores the acrimony in marriage, while disablingwishing the notion that there is something really good about goodbye.

Ann Brodnax and Dave Wright as Yvonne and Albert in “The Dinner Party”. Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

For its winter offering, the Vienna Theater Company has thawed out this rare cut of marital beef – and my compliments to chef, director Tom Flatt, who filters the moans across the page with expert pacing and turns what might otherwise be meaningless conversation into a well – balanced treatise on reconciliation. It’s a complete course on Neil Simon well worth your time, in a time when most of us can only dream of dinner parties.

Direction: A mysterious invitation brings six strangers, or simply strangers, to a chic Parisian restaurant. The first three guests to arrive, all men, realize that their common denominator is that they were represented by the same divorce lawyer, their alleged host. They logically assume that they are set up to meet three eligible women, Game of seduction-style. As the women stagger in, an overarching “love is blind” theme finally reveals that the couples have not only passed each other before, but walked down the aisle together, despite missing the first half of the play. (the grotesque part) to get all six of them in the same room at once. So what a stew they are in! It helps build a warm appetite for couples therapy while they work things out (the comedy-drama).

And dinner never really takes place. A better name might have been “The Cocktail Party”, because as in many pranks, a drinks cart takes center stage (right).

Simon once said that with this work “he was trying to write a play very different from anything he had done before”, that he “wanted to break the concept that pranks can never get real, even for a minute”. No surprise, it opened on Broadway just two years after his second divorce from actress Diane Lander. Simon often drew inspiration from real life in his plays, and a pair in Having dinner also went through two divorces together. While there’s little realism in the script, VTC’s immensely talented onstage and offstage performers inject an authenticity that makes Cupid’s zingers and arrows both relatable and delightfully fun.

Sometimes it’s the little things that count. For example, sound designer Jon Roberts and soundboard operator Turner Bridgforth ensure that every time the patio doors open, a slice of the din of other diners enters. A bathroom door is subtly bathed in light to indicate entrances and exits, and lights rise and dim in response to plot dynamics – a light touch from lighting designer Jay Stein and operator of Micheal J. O’Connor Lighting Council.

Carla Crawford, Dave Wright, Elizabeth Keith, Charlie Boone, Bruce Rauscher and Ann Brodnax in “The Dinner Party”. Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

The production’s secret sauce, however, is never-coupled pairing — odd pairing, if you will. The chemistry is off the charts between Bruce Alan Rauscher as intellectual Claude, who is the first on the scene and the discoverer of the Drink Cart, and Dave Wright as simpleton Albert, #2. Claude is a candle bookseller and a frustrated writer, and Rauscher’s every move speaks volumes, both nuanced and revealing, comical and hurtful. One cannot help but see in him the languorous elegance of Alan Rickman mixed with a mischievous vibe of Tim Allen. He strikes lightness simply by planting his behind in the bergère (fancy French chair).

Claude’s sidekick, Albert, a lover of popular art, represents the proletariat in his rental costume. But Wright creates the most adorable character on stage – a teddy bear that serves as a trail for others lost in the fog. He’s the translator for conflicting couples, a buffer zone, until he has to confront his own ex and (hilariously) gives him the silent treatment.

Bruce Rauscher as Claude and Charles Boone as André in “The Dinner Party”. Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

At one point, Wright and Rauscher are wolfing down hors d’oeuvres at the Drink Cart when shades of Abbott and Costello emerge. Wright even riffs on Who is first? in a nervous volley with Mariette (Elizabeth Keith), the first spinster introduced, who inadvertently steals her heart.

While these two gentlemen stir up most of the laughs, real tears flow at the most tender moments. As Yvonne, Albert’s busted better half, Ann Brodnax taps into a deep emotional well to flesh out a portrayal of a woman who is both sex symbol and innocent, similar to Betty Boop, but whose release from the bonds of marital service and worship helps her hold on to hers – in impossibly high stilettos.

Ann Brodnax as Yvonne, Elizabeth Keith as Marietta, and Carla Crawford as Gabrielle in “The Dinner Party”. Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

Costume designer Farrell Hartigan’s clothing choices help define each character while enhancing the actors’ best qualities. Brodnax’s mod, the mustard mini flaunts showgirl sizzle, with oversized teardrop earrings that scream individuality. Andre (Charles “Charlie” Boone), who made his fortune in retail clothing, is dapper, with all deceit well disguised. The reason for Albert Klutzy’s large pocket square soon becomes clear. Mariette, a best-selling writer who blithely beats her ex’s fragile ego, looks strong in a sleek black pantsuit and buckled chain belt, clinking like silver. And the bombastic Gabrielle (Carla Crawford), a manipulative mistress, shows up in a flashy, shimmering tight dress. Although Crawford seems to be making her grand entrance again and again, playing a little too much for the audience, she stirs the pot with a solid and satisfying performance.

Yet putting strained marriages through the sieve means dinnerThe laughter eventually dies out. And it’s time to get real with anyone in your own group. Because believing that a night of rumination can mop up the trickle of regrets is indeed a far-fetched idea.

Duration: 1h45 without intermission

dinner plays until February 6, 2022, presented by the Vienna Theater Company performing at the Vienna Community Center – 120 Cherry Street SE, Vienna, VA. Tickets are $15 for general admission seating and can be purchased in advance at the Vienna Community Center or at the door. To reserve tickets, email [email protected]

COVID Safety: VTC will comply with the official COVID regulations in force at the time of the performance. Currently, the City and VCC are encouraging everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, to wear a mask in indoor public places (mandatory for ages 2-17).