Saturday, June 2, 2012


The “Pinter” Plays and a “Suite” of Neil Simon Play-lets

By Donnie Matsuda

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a collection of short plays packaged into two neat-and-tidy productions – “Two by Pinter” at North Coast REP and “California Suite” at Scripps Ranch Theatre.  In response to these short, easily digestible, bite-sized theatrical confections, I decided my review of these two shows should take on the style and structure of the pieces themselves.  So, here is my attempt at producing review-lets that tell you all you need to know in one brief, compact critique.

Elaine Rivkin as Sarah and Mark Pinter as Richard in Harold Pinter's "The Lover."  Photo by Aaron Rumley.
First, two plays by Harold Pinter – “The Lover” and “The Dumb Waiter” – randomly paired together and directed by North Coast REP’s artistic director, David Ellenstein.  It must first be said that Pinter is best known and admired (and sometimes avoided) because of his uncanny ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech.  His plays generally take place in a single room and his works, which blend comedy and drama, often focus on jealousy, betrayal, power, and sexual tension.  But with Pinter, it is more about how he says things than what he says that makes his dizzying dialogue so utterly intriguing.  Pinter's language, an oddball mix of lower-class vernacular and high class wit peppered with tons and tons of pregnant pauses, has been described as “Pinteresque,” and suggests a cryptically mysterious situation that is undermined by unspoken intrigue and imbued with hidden menace.  If that last line didn’t tickle your fancy or get your theatrical adrenaline flowing, then perhaps Pinter isn’t the playwright for you.

“The Lover” introduces us to an elegant, middle class couple who live in a detached house near Windsor. On the surface, they seem to have it all – a nice home, comfortable careers, and great chemistry – until we learn that their marriage is rather lacking in the bedroom.  The play begins with them openly bantering back and forth about their sexual (ahem) indiscretions as husband Richard (a winning Mark Pinter) nonchalantly quips, “Is your lover coming today?” and his wife Sarah (a fetching Elaine Rivkin) replies dreamily, “Yes.”   But don’t worry about potential inequality in this 1960’s adulterous arrangement because Richard has his own “slut” that he’s been seeing on the side.  It is all talked about with such flippant flair and anchored with underlying ambiguity and ambivalence that it makes one stop and think about what roles reality and fantasy play in intimate relationships.  And, of course, this being Pinter, there is a juicy twist that cinches the ending and puts a decided denouement on this hour-long pedantic and playful pas-de-deux.

(L to R): Frank Corrado as Ben and Richard Baird as Gus in Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter."  Photo by Aaron Rumley
After intermission, we are immediately transported to a completely different time and place (thanks to Marty Burnett's masterful set design that transforms from upscale English country manor to dark and dank basement in a matter of minutes).  Here, in "The Dumb Waiter," we meet Ben and Gus (a formidably amusing Frank Corrado and Richard Baird, respectively), two hit men who, while trapped in said basement waiting for their next hit, talk back and forth about a number of seemingly insignificant topics, including the latest newspaper headlines, the existence of an Eccles cake, the identity of cricket players in a photo on the wall, and whether the appropriate phrase is "put the kettle on" or "put the gas on."

And this being Pinterland, there are deeper and darker themes at work here, the most potent of which is the idea of political terror masquerading as stuffy murder melodrama.  As actor Frank Corrado states in his program notes, "What makes 'The Dumb Waiter' all the more intriguing is that the political terror has as its inscrutable operative a mechanical conveyance that seems to take perverse pleasure in making capricious sport of those who dumbly await their marching orders and those who unsuspectingly await their fate."  And here, as we sit though the play's maddening and discomforting dialogue until we reach a point where we can barely take the tedium anymore, the general sense of menace and absurdity grows to a surprising and most telling conclusion.  To top it off, it is all delivered with spot-on accuracy by Pinter pros Corrado and Baird whose comfortable chemistry and in-depth understanding of the playwright inform a most intriguing and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

(L to R): Bernard X. Kopsho, Teri Brown, and Susan Clausen Andrews as visitors from Philadelphia in Neil Simon's "California Suite."  Photo by Daren Scott.
The mood is much lighter over at Scripps Ranch, where Fran Gercke directs a whirlwind of four hilarious Neil Simon play-lets under the auspices of "California Suite."  Taking place in rooms 203 and 204 of the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, "Suite" chronicles various couples as they visit from New York (Scene 1), Philadelphia (Scene 2), London (Scene 3), and Chicago (Scene 4).  While none of the scenes are related, the sextet of actors frequently does double duty to portray the five couples featured in the play's mixed bag of scenes that adroitly unfold over the course of two hours.

The six actors here - Susan Clausen Andrews, Teri Brown, Bernard X. Kopsho, Julie Anderson Sachs, Eddie Yaroch, and Brian Salmon - are all superb and incredibly funny in their over-the-top characterizations and off-the-wall actions.  In Scene 1, Sachs and Yaroch are particularly compelling as Hannah and William Warren, a divorced couple from New York who bicker and banter back and forth as they are forced to decide what living arrangements are best for their daughter Jenny.  Not only do these credible actors handle their difficult dialogue with ease, but they share a very crude chemistry that is both mind-numbing and heart-breaking to watch.  Contrast that with the slapstick antics of Scene 2, in which conservative middle-aged businessman Marvin Michaels (a panicked Kopsho) awakens to discover an unconscious prostitute in his bed with his wife Millie (a wholesome Andrews) on her way up to his suite.  It's a comedy of errors as Kopsho pulls out all the side-splitting, physically comedic stops in order to conceal all traces of his rather obvious indiscretion.

Teri Brown and Brian Salmon as visitors from London in Neil Simon's "California Suite."  Photo by Daren Scott.
The two scenes in Act Two are perhaps a bit less satisfying - and they drone on a bit too long - but they are still solidly acted and amusing enough as written.  Scene 3 gives us the pompous British actress Diana Nichols (played with aplomb by Brown) and her once-closeted husband Sidney (played with suave smoothness by Salmon) as they prepare to head out for the red carpet at the Academy Awards.  Nichols is understandably nervous about the evening, as she is a first time nominee for Best Actress and this accolade could re-energize her dormant acting career, but we see in a sort of post-awards epilogue how things actually turn out.  (I won't spoil it here, but let's just say it's not pretty.)  It all comes to a comedic head in Scene 4, as we meet two tennis-playing couples from Chicago - Mort and Beth Hollender (Kopsho and Sachs) and Stu and Gert Franklyn (Yaroch and Andrews) - as their mixed doubles match ends with more than just a broken ankle.  It's a menagerie of verbal repartee that rather slowly devolves into a match of bangings and bruisings as the scene goes out with more of a whimper than a bang.

As is to be expected from the always excellent Scripps Ranch Theatre, the technical aspects here are uniformly outstanding with a spiffy two-room hotel suite designed by Chad G. Dellinger, dramatically diverse lighting by Mitchell Simkovsky, and regionally appropriate costumes by Melissa Coleman-Reed.  Overall, the pacing of the production is zippy and zany (thanks to spry staging by Gercke) and it all comes together rather seamlessly in one fun and funny collection of playful play-lets.

Things to know before you go: Two by Pinter plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through June 17, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm.  Tickets are $32-49 with discounts available for students and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit

Things to know before you go: California Suite presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre plays at the Legler Benbough Theatre at Alliant International University through June 24, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, seniors, and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit

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