The absence of civility is noted everywhere in American life these days, from the freeway to the multiplex — even in the courteously hushed world of the theater, where midperformance talking, candy unwrapping and walkouts appear to be enjoying a renaissance among some audience members. Just my luck, then, that my latest visit to the Mark Taper Forum was the night everyone decided to behave. I listened in vain for a snippet of inconsiderate conversation, or the mischievous alarms of cell phones and pagers — anything to divert my attention from the narcotizing mantras emanating from Neil Simon‘s new comedy. No one can accuse Simon of coasting along on his reputation: Although it has become an intellectual pastime to dismiss his plays as so much theatrical meat loaf, The Dinner Party truly earns our scorn.

Simon places his 30-somethingth play in a near-mythical world of disembodied ideas and conversational pingpong, where existence is stripped down to an ageless combat between man and woman. In other words, France. The specific setting is a private dining room, within a ritzy Parisian restaurant, that resembles a hall in the Frick Museum: The walls are frescoed in the manner of Fragonard, and the chamber’s massive carved wooden door looks as though it would give King Kong a hard time. When the lights come up, the bemused look on Claude Pichon‘s (John Ritter) face says he’s not admiring the rococo shenanigans on the wall so much as he is contemplating the fact that we‘re a long way from Brighton Beach.

Claude, a bookseller, is soon joined by a rent-a-car businessman named Albert Donay (Henry Winkler), a kind of idiot fixe whose conversational tic of taking everyone at their literal word sets up 90 minutes of annoying who’s-on-first? repartee. The third man who comes to dinner is clothing magnate Andre Bouville (Edward Herrmann), a gruff millionaire with little patience for his present company — all of whom are strangers to one another — or for the mysterious event that has summoned them here, a dinner party for six. Eventually, the remaining three guests arrive: Mariette Levieux (Anette Michelle Sanders), Yvonne Fouchet (Veanne Cox) and Gabrielle Buonocelli (Frances Conroy).

The boy-girl pairing is no accident, for the guests are, in fact, three divorced couples. What follows is an evening of what-went-wrong? soul-searching, chaperoned by Gabrielle, who has organized this little hell night in order to win back Andre. She kicks off her plan by initiating the kind of squirmy parlor games that are grounds for divorce in any country, however. First, with the room‘s doors locked from the outside, she forces her guests to admit the meanest thing their spouse ever did to them, then she makes them describe the nicest. Six characters delivering two monologues apiece slow the action to such a crawl that an appreciative shudder sweeps through at least part of the audience when the claustrophobic Mariette sinks into a panic attack upon realizing she is locked in. Think No Exit without the lesbian.

John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set design tries hard to set a Gallic tone, but it‘s hard to fathom how The Dinner Party might have succeeded on even a modest level. The Taper production, staged by John Rando, who shows a flair for choreography but keeps his performers on long leashes, is endowed with a cast of actors of whom half are familiar and likable veterans of TV and movies. Ritter’s infectious affability makes Claude the story‘s a emotional gyroscope, if not its compass. The mugging Winkler’s Albert, however, is an insufferable passive-aggressive, and Herrmann, while appropriately authoritarian, is too one-dimensional a figure, even by the forgiving standards of comedy, to save the play.

Likewise, Sanders‘ vixenish persona is tart enough for the sophisticated comedy The Dinner Party aspires to, but Cox is allowed to go all dreamy on us too often, while both Conroy’s romantic matron and her billowy, Dior-like gown seem to have been downloaded from another play entirely.

But perhaps the main problem is that Simon has dropped little people into a big situation, and his characters are just too prosaic to ever rise to the occasion. As if to make up for this, they loudly stomp around the furniture, and go to the bathroom a lot. It doesn‘t help that we never believe this is a ”French“ setting, even though Simon calls for everything but accordion music to force the connection between his American-sounding characters and their supposed citizenship. Similarly, we simply don’t buy anything his characters say. When Gabrielle tells her guests that she loves the materialistic, misanthropic Andre for his mind, we think, ”Who is she kidding?“ And when Andre shortly after replies, ”I feel like I‘m talking to a machine that spits out poisonous tennis balls,“ we begin to wonder about the tycoon’s grasp of metaphor — or, at least, about his tennis gear.

In the end, Simon, like his characters, is overwhelmed by the exploration of marriage and its discontents — either that, or he‘s not really invested in its outcome. The playwright, a veteran of five marriages himself, might have been expected to bring an unsentimental expertise to the evening, a wealth of experience with which to imbue Claude and his acquaintances; instead, the whole project comes off like a pretentious writing exercise whose Parisian locale is calculated to somehow lend it depth, or cachet.

There is, finally, a feeling of sadness that comes from watching The Dinner Party, for its hollowness reminds us of Simon’s past glories, from the groovy badinage of Come Blow Your Horn to the warped domesticity of The Odd Couple. As I‘ve mentioned, it’s become reflexive in certain quarters to dismiss Simon, in much the same way that so many belittle Norman Rockwell and the Mark Taper Forum for simply giving the public what it wants. Yet there‘s nothing wrong in trying to appease our insatiable need to laugh, and Simon’s long career has given American theater indelible characters, and our language unforgettable one-liners. At age 72, with his plays, marriages and autobiographies behind him, Simon appears to lack only one thing — the need to write.

Is it fair to blame actors for being hams when their playwright is one himself — to the extent that he places himself onstage for no discernible reason? Attend Steve Allen‘s A Christmas Carol at Theater West and judge for yourself. From a distance, you’d think that Allen‘s musical adaptation would be, if nothing else, a jazzy, swingin’ retelling of Dickens‘ morality tale, brought up to date and, if not exactly Y2K compliant, then at least goofily ”modern.“

Alas, the composer and showman who became TV America’s gatekeeper to the cool world by introducing it to Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce has chosen to stick to a scene-by-scene re-enactment of the story, complete with adorable urchins and shawl-wrapped women. ”Walk-er!“ we say to ourselves as an American-accented Harold Gould (so convincingly British, at LATC years ago, as Goldberg in Pinter‘s The Birthday Party) appears onstage as Scrooge and proceeds to halfheartedly diss Christmas.

Allen’s score may be charitably called a distillation of pop and jazz styles, although his songs are a generic potpourri of niceties that are aerosoled over the stage like air freshener. Steverino himself occasionally appears, seated on a stool and holding what looks like a photo album across which someone‘s written ”A Christmas Carol“ in marker pen, as though this is The Script from which he’s reading.

The narrative — both Allen‘s and that performed onstage — is virtually indistinguishable from any of the movie or animated treatments we’ve seen, and, if anything, Allen‘s London is a softer, cuddlier place than we’re used to. This Christmas Carol holds no terrors for its characters or for us, and so, no moral updraft either. Perhaps most unforgivable, it omits Scrooge‘s awful encounter in a derelict graveyard with his own tombstone. With an image this powerful missing, the show cries out for an equally terrifying replacement. Perhaps a machine spitting out poisonous tennis balls.

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