THIS MONTH, Asbury Memorial Theatre will share a classic of American theatre.
Plaza Suite, the 1968 comedy from legendary playwright Neil Simon, marks the second Simon-penned piece that Asbury Memorial has produced.
Dr. Ronnie Spilton, who took the reins on Tybee Performing Arts Society’s 2015 production of Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, will direct Asbury’s anticipated production.
“When they suggested another Neil Simon, I said, ‘I can give you a list of 30 plays!” Spilton recalls.
A tall task indeed. From a body of work that includes favorites like Sweet Charity, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and beyond, Plaza Suite emerged as the winner.
The production is composed of three acts featuring different characters. While they may come from various walks of life and find themselves in an array of unusual circumstances, everyone in Plaza Suite has one thing in common—a key to the luxurious Suite 719 of New York City’s Plaza Hotel.
Act One, Visitor From Mamaroneck, features couple Sam and Karen Nash returning to their honeymoon suite in an attempt to bring the heat back to their marriage.
In Act Two, Visitor from Hollywood, a film producer meets up with an old flame who is now a suburban housewife.
In the play’s final act, Visitor from Forest Hills, a bride battles cold feet and locks herself in the posh bathroom. Through her protestations, the bride’s parents hilariously attempt to talk her to the altar.
The original performance of Plaza Suite at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre featured the great George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton starring in each of the three acts. Simon was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, and director Mike Nichols took home the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play.
Film fans may remember the 1971 cinematic version featuring Walter Matthau, Stapleton, Barbara Harris, and Lee Grant, or even Carol Burnett’s version, a 1987 TV movie.
“Plaza Suite is a staple of community theatre,” Spilton explains. “The roles are usually done by different performers...but in [Asbury’s production], instead of one man, one female in all three roles, they’re all different actors. In many ways, it’s like directing different plays.”
While Spilton strives to stay true to the original play, she also likes to throw in some twists.
“I like to tweak it a little bit and give things a punch,” she says. “I added some dancing with a maid and a butler between the acts. I’ve placed the lobby, the entrance, down in the audience. The characters come out on the floor and walk around the stage up into the suite...it’s something a little different.”
As for the swingin’ style, Spilton is an expert.
“I was a young adult in the ’60s,” she says. “That was my era. I kid the cast: ‘You don’t have to go to Google. Ask me, I was there!’ In the program, I put in a time period with a short listing ot major events...Vietnam, Kennedy was killed...there is a timeline so the audience can remember the period. I even wrote about the difference in currency. When we talk about $4,000 for something in 1968, that was about $28,000. I think people need to know that.”
It’s considered a comedy, but Plaza Suite is not without its serious moments, too. That balance of emotion was a welcome challenge for both Spilton and her cast, including Ann Robb, Ed Wischmeyer, Donald Jarvis, Catherine Erhardt, Patrick Prokop, Kelley Gray, Ray Ellis, Cheri Hester, and Les Taylor.
“You have to be able to be serious and have a good time with the comedy,” Spilton says. “It runs the gamut of an acting range. I’ve been doing theatre for over 50 years, and it’s nice to have a challenge and a little excitement.”
Another hurdle was transforming the Asbury stage into the posh Plaza Suite, but with a great support team, audiences will bear witness to the luxe life.
“The Plaza is the most luxurious hotel not only in New York, and not only in America!” she says. “Someone made a magnificent chandelier—you just open your mouth and gasp.”
For any theatre fans who have never seen an Asbury production, Plaza Suite is a great place to start.
“There are lots of people working the production here,” Spilton attests. “People are always floored by the amount of talent at Asbury.”