Neil Simon cooks with humor and reality

In The Dinner Party, Neil Simon places people who would rather not come anywhere near each other in the same restaurant with others in the same predicament. It is a recipe for disaster – or not, if one has Simon’s light touch of wit and humor and gift for tackling a thorny issue like divorce.

Albert Donay, a rental car dealer who considers himself at heart a born painter, has had two divorces. That is fairly common, but it ceases to be standard fare when one learns that both divorces involved the same woman. The first time was better than the second, or else they wouldn’t have tried again, goes one line in the play.

Claude Pichon, a rare book dealer, married a woman who got half of all he had after their divorce. At one point he wishes he had divorced Albert as that would have been cheaper. The two are the first to arrive at a party they think was arranged by their divorce lawyer. Slowly the plot thickens and makes Simon’s concoction savory. As the other guests arrive they realize they have a lot to talk about.

The Dinner Party is a play with particular ingredients that could only have come from the boiling pot of hearty humor from Neil Simon’s kitchen. The playwright situates the action in Paris at a fancy restaurant. The characters are French. It would seem that he wants to pay homage to MoliEre, the inventor of bourgeois comedy, but in truth his attempt at sophistication lacks pretentiousness.

This is evident when one of the characters speaks of French authors like Camus and Sartre as if reading from a very American grocery list. It is a play with hints of MoliEre but wholly in the style that made Neil Simon famous. It is not a subtle play, nor is it surprising. However, it captures the bittersweetness of a broken vow.

It rings true because Neil Simon, after five marriages, knows what he is talking about. People say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Simon apparently thrives in this kitchen.

It is a traditional play with Neil Simon’s trademark witty lines and comic characters that are exaggerated in their goofiness, echoing Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis. What is not so traditional about the play is the absence of an intermission.

The action flows without interruption, in a real-time fashion where groups of characters with particular issues exchange their repartees or sardonic remarks, then leave the stage for another group to come and do their thing. It is well-timed, allowing for the plot to unravel gracefully, without jaggedness and with plenty of laughter.