NEW YORK — With "The Dinner Party," Neil Simon's 31st Broadway play, America's most commercially successful playwright has scaled new dramatic heights in one of his funniest and most compelling romantic comedies.
And despite some negative reviews from major theater critics here when it opened Oct. 19, "The Dinner Party" has huge advance ticket sales and is expected to settle into a long run at Broadway's venerable Music Box Theater.
Simon, the already undisputed master of modern theatrical comedy, has penned something that comes close to being as funny as his classic early works like "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park," two modern comedy masterpieces.
"The Dinner Party" contains a deceptively rich undercurrent of heartfelt emotion, which as the play progresses, is a blend of beauty, pathos, and joy. Like a lot of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's work, "The Dinner Party" doesn't contain an iota of self-pity.
Some of the banter between TV sitcom veterans John Ritter, as the rich and snobby Claude, and Henry Winkler, as mousey Albert, at times soars above Mr. Simon's own comedic heights.
Soon after they meet, Claude asks Albert, who is also a painter, what kind of things he paints.
"Cars, mostly," Albert responds. "In the abstract. Well, they're all out there sitting on the lot posing for me.... I don't need a studio."
"Abstract cars? Much of a market for that?" Claude asks to which Albert responds, "Well, people come there to rent cars, not buy paintings.... I tried renting the paintings once, it didn't work out."
The plot of "The Dinner Party" is as deceptively simple as some of its lines.
Gabrielle, deftly and poignantly portrayed by Penny Fuller, invites her ex-husband, with whom she's still in love, and two other couples who used to be married to each other, to a dinner party at a posh Parisian restaurant.
Several funny things happen on the way to discovering why she planned the party and how her Machiavellian plan affects the others.
For his part, Simon claims the play is not autobiographical even though he has been divorced three times himself.
"Yes, divorce was probably on my mind when I wrote 'The Dinner Party,' " Simon says in a Monitor interview. "But I wanted to give the subject a much more universal appeal. So this play, which is set in Paris, can be done anywhere."
John Lee Beatty's set for "The Dinner Party" is as rich as the characters.
I agree with several critics who carped about some of the seemingly arbitrary exits and entrances but, for me, these and other minor flaws failed to detract from the overwhelming greatness and completeness of "The Dining Party."
"The Dinner Party" is as important an event in American theater (as far as writing is concerned) as Brian Dennehy's performance in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" was for acting two years ago.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society