As the specter of final exams confronts me with my spectacular ignorance, I find it healthy to take the occasional inventory of the little wisdoms Yale has taught me. How to bullshit. How to know when to bullshit (if not when to shut up). And while I’m disappointed to hit the end of freshman year still unaware of the naked party code words, I take comfort in the snobbier insights. For example: the best theater at Yale usually takes place in basements.
Put up by director Isaac Hudis ’16 in the cavernous Davenport-Pierson auditorium, Neil Simon’s “California Suite” benefits from the luxury of this truism. The play’s integrity — I kept on scribbling “clean” in my notebook — got me thinking about why the best art takes place literally underground. A basement is your architectural equivalent to the Freudian id, so it’s reasonable to assume that underground plays, far removed from critical scrutiny and high expectations, are also far removed from the superego of pretension. They’re more expressive, more whimsical and much more daring; they hold to what I like to call the Hemingway Pleasure Principle — with modest resources, they remain honest, true and damn entertaining.
“California Suite” plays up the double entendre of its title; it’s a suite of four (sweet) one-acts that take place entirely in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. Entirely without moral outrage, or any sustained outrage, for that matter, the first three one-acts see characters bantering through mini-wars of attrition; there’s so much so deep below the surface — and the verbal wit flies sky-high — that the play strikes you as comic prose. What’s impressive about Hudis’ direction is the way he seems to have lifted to three-dimensions a brilliant script that nevertheless feels like a book of Woody Allen short stories. And what’s brave about Hudis’ direction is how he pulls that off: by letting theater be theatrical, albeit poised but always a little over-the-top.
The fact that much of the furniture must be mimed obviously underlines the play as spectacle. In fact, so does the smart, symbolic blocking, which often places couples on either side of the bed — as if they were either parenthesizing it or approaching it as a negotiating table. But it’s really the actors who realize “California Suite” as effective theater. And ironically, they do so by overacting.
In the first one-act, a power-walking New York editor flies out to fetch her teenage daughter from the girl’s father in LA — a man who went by Bill in New York but uses Billy in his post-divorce life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Katherine Paulsen ’14, playing the woman, Hannah, talks as if she were using ice cubes for punctuation. Hannah’s a cold, hard eyelid-batting bitch, a prototypical ice queen who yaks her mouth to melting point. “You’re worse than a hopeless romantic. You’re a hopeful one,” she slowly tells her ex-husband, freeze-framing some humor so commonplace in this script that it could have gone unnoticed.
Grant Fergusson ’16 plays that ex-husband, and while his character dresses in boyish surf wear, the actor affects an old soul who drawls his words as much as he enunciates them. With this iron-fisted theatricality, Fergusson inspires the audience to string the script’s gags and one-liners into a psychological complexion, if not a narrative arc. The wit crescendos but the emotional tension never really does; what’s most affecting about this one-act, and most of the others in “California Suite,” is precisely the spottiness, the elastic turbulence of emotions. The play eschews climax because all of life is one big climax.
Like Paulsen and Fergusson, Anya Richkind ’16 and Conor Bagley ’16 revel in the verbal, but their combined performance — as a couple dealing with infidelity at a bar mitzvah — oils up every move with a hyper-energetic slapstick flourish. It’s fun, and certainly elicited roaring approval from the audience. Richkind’s barely-controlled hysteria is overdone as tactfully as Bagley’s fidgety innocence.
And that’s why the last one-act of “California Suite” disappoints: not because the actors are bad, but because they’re so good — because Neil Simon, unfortunately, can’t write (physical) slapstick as well as Richkind and Bagley can act verbal slapstick. The actors know best when to summon slapstick as a device; when the playwright assigns it, it just feels tedious. (I suppose there’s such a thing as libertarianism in theater, which replaces the odious nanny-state with the nanny-playwright.) In a way that’s oddly sexual, the last one-act sees the cerebral friction of the earlier one-acts explode into physical relief.
Here, two couples are on vacation, and Beth (played by Richkind) breaks her leg playing doubles tennis. She tries to get to bed with an ice pack, but by the time she’s safely convalescing so are the others — from a concussion, a cut foot, a black eye, all acquired in an explosive comedy of errors. The point here seems to be quite simple, or just wildly overstated: that the couples have been repressing their frustrations with each others’ most minor obsessions. And then they start regretting their outburst, and try to re-repress emotions. One man shakes his friend on the ground, screaming at him to promise that they’ll share another vacation next year.
It’s funny that the script here, about people overacting on their emotions, fails, while overacting is precisely how the production succeeds. Ironically, it is through its deliberate theatricality that the play approximates real life.
By the way, I went to the show twice. No one had to bang my head in order to convince me.