Friday, March 11, 2016

Plaza Suite (1971)

Simon’s first anthology play, and first of his “Suite” series, opened on Broadway in 1968 and arrived on the screen in May of 1971. We get three Simon stories for the price of one here, all taking place in the famed Plaza Hotel in New York City, all starring Walter Matthau in a leading role, and all give one major-league black eye to the institution of marriage. It sure was wise of him to start off with the one he did – it’s his saddest, most depressing story to date, and things thankfully get lighter as the film progresses. 

But having said that, this is still a sturdy, finely character-driven screenplay that is nothing if not greatly involving. Coming out in 1971, the year of Kubrick’s shocking A Clockwork Orange, William Friedkin’s gritty The French Connection and umpteen “message movies” driven by the counterculture movement, it was seen by far too many critics as representative of a passé style and subject matter – a chatty exploration of relationships, warts and all, and the frailties and foibles which always tend to accompany them, masked as they often are by humor and one-liners.

Walter Matthau, in his second Simon go-round, first plays Sam Nash, a 50-something businessman meeting his 42-year old wife at the Plaza Hotel, an arrangement she had set up to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary. He forgot all about it, and she bends over backwards to have a civil conversation in a marriage of which the romance, indeed the niceness, has clearly taken leave. Things get pretty edgy between them, all leading up to his confession that he’s having an affair with his secretary, and the vignette ends ambiguously with Sam leaving the hotel to “work late,” and possibly for good.
Next, Matthau is Jesse Kiplinger, a big Hollywood producer, in New York for business but so lonely he phones any girl he can find to spend the afternoon with. Then he calls Muriel, an old flame now married and living in Tenafly, NJ. Nervous as could possibly be, she drives in, constantly reminding herself to stay “for one drink,” but her defenses are gradually melted when Jesse works his charm on her, ultimately admitting his fondness for her based primarily on his need for a nice, down-to-earth woman. After a few drinks, she returns his advances, although her attraction to him seems based more on the stars in her eyes – movie stars, that is.

Finally. Matthau is Roy Hubley, Type-A father of the bride of a lavish wedding hosted by the hotel. Everything better be perfect for the money he’s shelling out – but little things like napkin misspellings tend to get him riled up. He ain’t seen nothing yet; it turns out that when Mrs. Hubley calls him up to their suite, he discovers that their daughter has a case of the jitters and has locked herself in the bathroom. After a series of ill-conceived and/or ill-executed attempts to get her out, she confides in daddy her fears – that she’ll one day wind up like her quarrelling parents. It takes the groom’s terse reprimand of “Cool it!” to change her disposition, and wedding bells shall ring after all.

As I mentioned, it’s the first segment that really shines for me – the sad, likely final, hours of a decaying marriage are always painful to watch, but they are Simonized to at least provide nervous laughter as the wife slowly discovers of her husband’s infidelity. The way her accusations begin as jokes feel all too real – isn’t that the way sticky situations get broached? Maureen Stapleton does an expert job of playing the cuckolded hausfrau wife with absolute credibility; in fact, she’s such a put-upon presence that I felt some of her sarcastic zingers were out of character. Her self-pitying, passive-aggressive ping-pong dialogue somehow manages the authenticity of verbal verisimilitude while also maintaining a dazzling stagecraft. Credit that to director Arthur Hiller, who also directed the previous Simon film, The Out of Towners.

I’m speculating that perhaps Simon had this idea under his belt for a while, but felt it was too depressing too comprise an entire film or play. Scaling it down to vignette size, and adding two other marriage-related short works was probably the best way to handle such material – indeed the other stories, particularly the second one about the producer and his ex-girlfriend, reminded me of the short stories of Raymond Carver, who specialized in modern tales of personal, sometimes chance encounters between lonely people searching for friendship or love – or some kind of connection to ease the pain of isolation. This story features Barbara Harris in perhaps her best role since A Thousand Clowns, a bundle of neuroses so uncertain of what she wants that she barely knows if she wants… him.

And since I already discussed the first two stories, a few comments about the third. This one’s pretty lightweight (it has to be), and relies heavily on slapstick until the dénouement, in which we get the to the theme – the cyclical nature of marriage, for better or worse. A good capper, not great, but loaded with wonderful dialogue that follows the folky rhythms of language – weaving throughout jokes and seriousness with sharply observed agility.

A fine time to be had in suites 719, 720 and the Baroque Room. Here’s looking forward to more from the “Suite” series.

Nostalgia alert: Sam Nash is concerned about an error in his accounting, and why the “IBM” didn’t pick it up!  

Rating: ***1/2

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