The City of Gaithersburg’s Arts on the Green consists of three main arts spaces and boasts events from calligraphy lessons to concerts. One of their spaces, the Arts Barn, houses a small teal and purple, 99-seat theatre that hosts local performing arts groups like the Sandy Spring Theatre Group (SSTG). The 70-year old theatre group performs most of their shows at the Arts Barn and is currently performing Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” their second show of the 2018–2019 season. Produced by Mara Bayewitz, Evelyn Renshaw, and Jerry Callistein and directed by Bruce Hirsch, SSTG’s take on Plaza Suite transports the audience to the late 1960s. As we sat in our seats waiting for the performance to begin, The Temptations, The Beach Boys, and Frankie Valli played over the speakers, already setting the stage.
This thought-provoking, witty work on the passing of time shows why Sandy Spring Theatre Group continues to thrive.
Reminiscent of the Stevie Nicks song “Landslide,” “Plaza Suite” takes place almost a decade earlier in 1968. This series of three one-act plays take place in the same room–suite 719 in New York City’s Plaza Hotel. Though considered a comedy, “Plaza Suite” tackles the difficult subject of relationships and the test of time. In the first act, “A Visitor from Mamaroneck,” Karen Nash (Amy Black) tries to rekindle the love in her decades-old marriage to her husband Sam (Mark Steimer) by booking a short stay in their former honeymoon suite.
In Act 2, “A Visitor from Hollywood,” big shot Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (Kirk Patton Jr.) tries to woo his easily impressed (now married) high school girlfriend, Muriel Tate (Kryss Lacovaro). In the final act, “A Visitor from Forest Hills,” Norma and Roy Hubley (Susan Paisner and Jim Kitterman) try desperately to convince their daughter Mimsey (Rachael Harding) to stop putting off her wedding by locking herself in the suite’s bathroom. If these scenes sound depressing, it’s because they are. Luckily for audience and cast members alike, Simon includes enough banter to make the discomfort palatable and, perhaps inexplicably, even funny.
As in many of Simon’s plays, the women in “Plaza Suite” are the strongest characters––a distinction the SSTG actresses embraced wholeheartedly. Black and Paisner took their characters even further with physicality and affected accents that highlighted their unapologetic claims to their own lives. Without speaking a word, Black portrayed a housewife that is both harried and hopeful. She slowly built on her character, giving her a full arc in just one act. Black rendered her character both likable and relatable, despite a script alternating between cajoling and sarcasm. Paisner’s take on a slightly hysterical mother-of-the-bride was just as successful. Though the world was crumbling around Norma Hubley, Paisner’s portrayal of Norma’s freneticism was remarkably controlled. Paisner balanced energy and humor perfectly without losing the story in her character’s antics. Despite Simon’s tendency to slip into heavy-handed tropes for the sake of commentary, the cast’s commitment to their characters found meaning in the clichés.
In addition to a strong cast, SSTG’s set design (Bill Brown), dressing (Sonya Okin), and props (Charity Goodman, Gale Luce, and Karen Peterson) elevated the performance. Although the suite had multiple rooms, Brown’s set allowed the audience to see everything at once, allowing the audience an omniscient view of the characters’ lives and amplifying the comedic effect of their interactions. The dressing and props kept the consistency of suite 719, while cueing the audience into the details of each act.
“Plaza Suite” asks us if life will live up to our expectations and what we will do when it doesn’t. The sense of ease exuded by the warm community of audience members at the Arts Barn allowed me to let my guard down and engage with these questions in the raw way Simon intended. This thought-provoking, witty work on the passing of time shows why Sandy Spring Theatre Group continues to thrive.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
“Plaza Suite” is playing from February 8 – 24, 2019 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Rd, Gaithersburg, MD 20878. Tickets and additional information can be found here or by calling 301-258-6394.