Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’ through a burlesque lens

BEIRUT – A puzzling enigma, a secretive atmosphere, suspicious characters: these are the component parts of “The Dinner Party,” which opened at Masrah Babel Saturday.Written by Pulitzer prize-winning American playwright Neil Simon and directed here by Zeinab Assaf, this witty comic piece features students from the Haigazian University Acting Club.

The figurative curtain rose upon a fancy private dining room in Paris. Glittering chandeliers, porcelain plates and wine glasses around a bouquet adorn the table. A Louis XVI-style velvet couch flanks the left side of the stage. Fake Fragonard-esque murals adorn the walls. Champagne bottles are displayed on the bar in the back.

The play opens upon this sophisticated black-and-while decor, where six characters sit static, in the dark. One can barely catch the blink of an eye. An unknown character enters, disrupting the motionlessness and silence, utters a few words, and all the characters leave the stage. The one-act play starts again.

In a flashback to an earlier scene, Claude (Sergej Schellen), the antique bookseller, appears on the stage. Dressed in black suspenders and a bow tie, he walks around the place and opens a little door in the wall, then starts dancing to The Rolling Stones’ hit “I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion.”

Moments later, Albert (Christophe Demirdjian), a nebbish who draws abstract paintings of used cars, enters the dining room. With amusing facial expressions and body movements, the clumsy little man introduces himself to Claude. Both characters are wondering about this mysterious dinner party to which they allegedly have been invited by Paul Gerard, the invisible host.

Andre (Wassim al-Haddad), an accomplished and haughty entrepreneur, enters wearing a shiny leather jacket. He immediately despises Claude and Albert, uttering several condescending jokes at their expense.

“You are a busy man,” Claude remarks. “No,” Andre retorts, “my secretary is.”

As the well-timed dialogue unfolds, the characters try to shed light on the enigmatic reasons for their coming together at this gathering. They soon discover the only thing they have in common: all three are divorced.

Then, one by one, the men’s ex-wives enter the dining room, triggering the men’s astonishment and discontent.

Claude’s classy ex-wife Mariette (Natascha Schellen), enters wearing a flowery feminine chapeau. The petite and vivacious Yvonne (Bianca Houtin), Albert’s two-time ex-wife, sports black leather boots with white heels.

Finally, the exquisite Gabrielle (Hanane Sabeh), clothed with an attractive black dress and white pearl bracelet, deciphers the enigma. It is actually she who masterminded the dinner party, inviting the three ex-couples here in an attempt to find out whether or not they can reconcile.

The suspense that is the driving force of the play sustains itself for about an hour, until Gabrielle’s theatrical entrance.

The comic highpoint of Assaf’s farcical version of Simon’s play is the hilarious Hilal (Hilal Kassem), a Lebanese tourist with a heavy southern accent who randomly interrupts the dinner.

While the dark stage features motionless, black-and-white-clad characters, the colorful Hilal appears under an orange moving spotlight, eating a baguette and talking on his mobile, mocking the guests in Lebanese dialect. (Significantly, he’s talking with his mother, not a wife or girlfriend.)

Assaf’s “The Dinner Party” is an extravagant comic experiment, revolving around the issue of relationships. While the mystery unravels throughout the play, the characters wonder about the otherworldly force that brought people together. Toward the end, the guests’ discussion descends to a cacophony, as each ex-couple screams at one another.

When Simon produced his work in 2000, he said, in an interview with the New York Times, that he “had the concept of creating a farce up to a certain point, and then instead of continuing the farce, to make a turn to where it becomes quite serious.”

While Simon treated the plot as a somber drama, Assaf added her own Lebanese touch “to make it lighter and cool,” she tells The Daily Star. She aimed to turn Simon’s work into a less serious and more entertaining theater piece.

Assaf’s alterations transform the comic melodrama into something indisputably vaudevillian. Doors and windows open and close, characters constantly rush off and on stage.

As Hilal disrupts the gathering, he suddenly vanishes through the small black door hidden within the wall. He rematerializes later on from the top window of the stage to shout a few jokes in Arabic before he disappears one more time.

When she finds herself alone with her former lover, Yvonne’s questions about relationships turn into burlesque of incoherent blather that Albert punctuates with disapproving gestures.

When Mariette decides to leave the party because it’s turning into a farce, Andre answers that ‘‘it’s already farce. I think we’re aiming for a much higher form of absurdity.’’

Assaf’s burlesque exploration of antagonistic characters and their absurdly dissonant relationships makes for a truly entertaining confection.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 04, 2011, on page 16.

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