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Party of Six

Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" explores the pros and cons of marriage

by Tom Tugend

October 14, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Perhaps no professional marriage counselor has a surer grip than Neil Simon on the unending nuances and permutations of the marital state.

Both from personal experience -- he recently introduced what I believe is his fourth wife at the Skirball Cultural Center -- and through some 30 plays dealing directly or tangentially with wedded bliss and pain, Simon has honed his observational power to a fine edge.

Never has he dissected his marital specimen, genus Americana, with more astuteness and wit than in the world premiere of "The Dinner Party" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Actually the setting is in a private dining room in a fine (is there any other?) Parisian restaurant and the characters have French names, but they still sound and behave like Americans to me.

As we open the 95-minute, no-intermission play, Claude Pichon (John Ritter), who deals in antique books and writes unpublished novels, arrives as the first of five characters in search of their supposed host, a much admired divorce lawyer, named Paul.

Claude is followed by Albert Donay (Henry Winkler), a somewhat slow-witted rental car dealer, who gradually gets smarter, and finally by Andre Bouville (Edward Herrmann), the acerbic owner of a string of boutiques.

The three gentlemen are strangers to each other and to the party's purpose, and in the process of getting to know and dislike each other, they exchange some of the choicest one-liners Simon -- after all, the certified master of the genre -- has crafted.

The mystery of the dinner party dissolves in the second half, as the ladies arrive one by one.

Mariette Levieux (a svelte, if claustrophobic Anette Michelle Sanders) is revealed as the ex-wife of Claude and ex-mistress of Andre. Next is Yvonne Fouchet (Veanne Cox), the slightly frazzled ex-wife of Winkler's Albert.

The final arrival is Gabrielle Buonocelli (Frances Conroy), Andre's ex-wife, who holds the key to solving the mystery of the party.

At this point, the dinner party and its six participants turn from banter to a more serious, even agonizing, exploration of marital relationships.

At Gabrielle's insistence, each person is asked to make public the worst thing his or her ex-spouse inflicted on him/her, and then, in a 180-degree turn, the best thing they remember from their failed marriages.

The game is well, if reluctantly, played on stage, but it is one which anyone interested in preserving an existing marriage would be well advised to avoid.

Under John Rando's direction, the six-character ensemble is generally well-matched, though Herrmann, by force of his physical presence and favored with the best lines, tends to dominate the proceedings, while Winkler, at times cannot resist the temptation to ham it up.

For Neil Simon fans, "The Dinner Party" is a worthy addition to their collection of the author's best works.

"The Dinner Party" continues through Jan. 16 at the Mark Taper Forum. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772.

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