Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Four sides of Neil Simon in Shawano

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As one of America’s popular playwrights, Neil Simon knows how to leave ’em laughing. That happens in “London Suite,” which Box in the Wood Theatre Guild is presenting for four more performances in Mielke Arts Center. “London Suite” is in four parts, though, and two of them show sides of Simon that audiences normally don’t expect.

Everything takes place in the same London hotel room at different times. It’s a nice room, and the hotel is swell. Hollywood actor Kevin Costner is a guest (unseen) in one of the scenes.

***

Creative: Playwright – Neil Simon; directors – Nathaniel Madsen, Early Fuller; set director – Matt Klamp; scenery – Jessica Walters; sound design – Ryan Winn; sound and lights – Corbin Magee; stage manager – Emma Etten

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. April 27, 28, 29, 2 p.m. April 30

Info: shawanoarts.com

***

If plays were baseball and Simon were a pitcher, “London Suite” would be Simon tossing, in order, a curve, a slider, another slider and then a fastball. I’ll explain the sequence this way:

Act I

Scene 1: Curve: “Settling Accounts.” Cast: Brian – Brandon Byng; Billy – Early Fuller.

A curveball is one of a playwright’s regular arsenal. But it can catch you off guard.

In this case, successful writer Brian has brought his financial planner, Billy, to the room at the point of a gun. Brian is four months overdue in his bill at the butcher shop, and Brian knows he has a ton of money – or should have. Slowly by slowly and layer of comedy upon comedy, Brian catches Billy in one lie after another. Brandon Byng and Early Fuller percolate along in a frisky sequence of act-and-react comedy.

Scene 2: Slider: “Going Home.” Cast: Lauren – Maddi Stuewer; Mrs. Semple – Jodi Angeli.

A slider is something exotic for the playwright. It is something unexpected.

In this case, comedy comes with some seriousness. A grown daughter encourages her mother to go on a date with a pleasant man from Scotland who struck up a conversation with the mother on the flight from America. Humor comes as Mrs. Semple talks about what happens on the evening of theater and dinner (and hospital). The audience doesn’t see what happens; it’s just talked about. And then, the mother has a revelation. The performances are fine, but Simon’s writing is stilted here.

Act II

Scene 3: Slider: “Diana & Sidney.” Cast: Diana – Jodi Angeli; Grace – Leah Allen; Sidney – Michael Brunner.

This slider takes a sharp dip into drama. This is very different for Simon. The situation is powerful, though.

Jodi Angeli (spreading her wings even more after “Going Home”) portrays Diana, an American TV actress on a promotional swing through Europe with her faithful secretary, Grace (Leah Allen). Michael Brunner portrays Diana’s former husband, Sidney, who is gay. Without giving away too much, this section is about love and mortality and generosity – all carefully presented by Angeli and Brunner. But, again, this is Neil Simon where he seldom goes in sensitive topics.

Scene 4: Fastball: “Man on the Floor.” Cast – Mark Ferris – Geoff Madsen; Annie Ferris – Karen Fuller; Mrs. Sitgood – Mary Madsen; Bellman – Nat Madsen; Dr. McMerlin – Brandon Byng.

Neil Simon’s main pitch is comedy. It’s his fastball. If the audience is a batter, and it swings at the expected zip of a fastball, a home run can result. And so it is with this segment.

Geoff Madsen does most of this scene on his back. His character, Mark, gets so upset by misplaced Wimbledon tickets that he throws out his back and is virtually helpless. Alone in the room after arguing with his wife (Karen Fuller), the phone rings on the other side of the room. He agonizingly crawls over, arriving just as the phone stops. Soon, he’s flopped on his back, and the doorbell rings. Soon enough, the doctor (Brandon Byng) arrives and talks about his bad back. Fast forwarding, the scene becomes a disaster zone with four people sprawled about. This is the Neil Simon that audiences expect, and it is a blast.

A tip of the hat for Box in the Wood Theatre Guild, the directors and the players for trying something different – including some colorful language in one scene and mature topics in another. Plus, everybody goes home with a good laugh after all.

How cool is this? Not many theaters in America have an aerie outside their front door. In a tall pine south of the Mielke Arts Center is an eagles nest. At intermission Sunday afternoon, an eagle was present, giving me the ol’ eagle eye. The theater is located in a wooded area – thus the name Box in the Wood Theatre Guild – and nearby is the pond of Mielke Park. A few hundred yards away – as the eagle flies – is Shawano Lake, which is probably good fishin’ for eagles.

NEXT: “South Pacific,” July 13-23

THE VENUE: The Mielke Arts Center was dedicated as the Mielke Theatre on Feb. 9, 1976, in the 24-acre Mielke Park on Airport Road north of Shawano in the Town of Westcott. The building was renamed in 1994. The Shawano County Arts Council maintains and operates the center. The theater is of the “black box” type – unadorned (cinder block walls, painted black, and cement floor, painted gray) and adaptable to the needs of a specific production. For “Seussical The Musical,” much of the audience is seated on risers.

THE PEOPLE: The Mielke Family Foundation was established in 1963 by Dr. Edward F. Mielke and his wife, Beulah (Bee), together with sisters Ruth and Sarah Mielke. A native of Shawano, Dr. Mielke practiced medicine in Appleton for 60 years. Ruth Mielke presided over the library at Appleton West High School for 40 years. Sarah Mielke taught advanced mathematics at Shawano High School.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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