A revamped suite Shoestring Players put new spin on least-known work of Neil Simon’s hotel trilogy
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Like the actors in London Suite, Trinity Sigurdson will play multiple roles when directing the third, and most forgotten, segment of playwright Neil Simon’s hotel trilogy for Winnipeg’s Shoestring Players.
London Suite, by Neil Simon
Produced by the Shoestring Players
● Asper Centre for Theatre & Film
● Masks mandatory
● Tickets: $15 online or at the door
● To Jan. 22
The Pulitzer-winning writer’s first trip to the inn came in 1968 with the premiere of Plaza Suite, set entirely on the seventh floor of New York’s Plaza Hotel, where at separate times in the same room several stories about seduction play out. Eight years later, Simon repeated with great success the same formula in California Suite.
In 1995, London Suite premièred, off-Broadway, closing after 169 performances later that year. In discussions of Simon’s career, it is often omitted or pushed to the footnotes.
So why did the Players choose it?
“People think of Neil Simon, and they think of comedy, but there is a lot of heart and warmth in this show,” says Sigurdson, who leads a cast of 11 on a budget that relates to the company’s moniker. “So much happens in the development of these scenes, and I felt they reflected problems we all can relate to.
“This play is not one that most people have seen, but the potential that could be read into it and pulled out of it spoke to me.”
The critical response to the original show was tepid, but Simon was locked in what some assayed as a privileged version of no-man’s land.
“If a new Simon comedy is funny, the odds are that it can’t be quite as funny as some previous Simon comedy,” the New York Times wrote. “If the new play is a smash hit, the next work must be even better. The stakes keep going up. Poor man.”
But even Simon’s least renowned work still has merit, Sigurdson says. “Every character he writes, no matter how small, has the potential to be a full character, with a full life, and a full background.”
In London Suite, the background for comedy and drama is always the same: a deluxe room at a posh hotel where four stories unfold.
“This play is not one that most people have seen, but the potential that could be read into it and pulled out of it spoke to me.”–Trinity Sigurdson
In the first, a writer and his manager have a financial dispute. In the second, a mother and daughter go on a shopping spree and get a somewhat decent proposal. In the third, a sequel to a segment of California Suite, a once-married actress and writer face a medical challenge. Finally, a father’s back gives out during a stressful afternoon, and the man spends the bulk of the scene laying on his back, immobilized, with his daughter nearby in a tizzy.
The relatability of these stories is universal. The challenge is in bringing them to life with fresh methods. Sigurdson, who directed Ferris Wheel at last year’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival, even updated some of Doc Simon’s content to suit a new era. Originally, the last scene featured an interaction between husband and wife that Sigurdson found rather toxic.
One other element of the show that appealed to Sigurdson was that her crew and cast — Jenna Anderson, Merri-Lou Patterson, Brent Bruchanski, Rick Scherger, Ruth Osemeke, Marlon Goolcharan, Dave Pruden, Calum Peppard, Joan Wilton, Hayden Maines and Bernard Boland — could safely rehearse their respective scenes in small groups. With the pandemic still going, theatre companies big and small have required more frequent substitutions by understudies. In community theatre, that isn’t an opportunity regularly afforded.
Cost and relative ease of execution are of course other reasons the play appealed to Sigurdson. A one-room apartment is cheaper and quicker to furnish than an Italian villa, but it is not necessarily an easier place to execute a stage production.
“From a directing standpoint, it really challenges you,” Sigurdson says of the bottled-up setting. “We’ve all had that thought in a hotel suite. What are all the stories that have taken place in that room?
“It’s a voyeuristic way of storytelling,” she says, comparing it to innocent eavesdropping in a coffee shop. “You get quite engrossed listening to someone else.”
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.