This transfer of Neil Simon’s three-act play about couples in crisis comes with Broadway’s famed levels of audience appreciation, perhaps unsurprisingly given that New York royalty is headlining. The whooping begins at the sight of an empty set. Decibels rise when Sarah Jessica Parker walks on. Matthew Broderick’s entry stirs more hoopla. One woman in my sight-line holds up a glowing phone to secure her brazen memento, 15 minutes in. Parker has already asked an audience member at a previous show to put away their phone, mid-production. Ushers zip up and down the aisles, clearly hoping to prevent another such misdemeanour.
Never mind the comedy on stage, this is a celebrity circus. Even costume changes get audience oohs and aahs. It seems oddly disproportionate because, as exciting as it may be to see Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw on stage, the production is flat and forgettable, not testing either actor’s seasoned skills on the boards (though this is Parker’s debut in the West End).
Ice but no fire … Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker in Plaza Suite. Photograph: Marc Brenner
That is a shame because there is something thrilling about its premise: for Parker and Broderick, who are married, to play three different 1960s-era couples living in marital disharmony, each dramatising their unspent desires and disappointments in the same swanky seventh-floor hotel suite. What truth and tension can they bring to Simon’s romcom gone awry?
Not much. Under the direction of John Benjamin Hickey, it feels strangely like Parker and Broderick are saying lines rather than assuming roles. The first, most sober act features a couple, married for over 20 years, on their wedding anniversary. She is annoyingly ditzy, he is pompous and annoyed. Parker puts more energy into it but Broderick is oddly stolid. When an affair is uncovered, there is some ice but no fire. The tone stays that of a breezy comedy of manners with no real pain glimpsed within it, however briefly.
Carrie Bradshaw would never … Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in Plaza Suite. Photograph: Marc Brenner
The second act comes off worse. A couple meet after 17 years: she has stayed put in Brooklyn while he has gone on to become a hotshot Hollywood producer. Broderick looks like Austin Powers, complete with black-rimmed glasses, and slips around the floor cartoonishly, while Parker wears a garish psychedelic dress and plays her lines for unsubtle laughs (Carrie Bradshaw might well have rebelled against the hideous dresses that Parker wears across the board).
The last scenario features a couple whose daughter has barricaded herself into the bathroom on her wedding day, and who are desperate to get her up the aisle. Parker is dressed in a wedding day dress and hat that looks, unoriginally, like Lee Grant’s in the 1971 film, starring Walter Matthau opposite three different female leads. That adaptation has a corny, period look but its performances are more nuanced than they are here.
It might be that the play has dated badly (and this production makes little effort to give it a fresh spin), or that it does not fare well under such blunt, vaudevillian treatment. The third act is more overtly clownish but works better, while Broderick’s physical comedy is more energised, vaguely resembling Spencer Tracy’s in Father of the Bride, but it does not do enough to redeem itself on the whole.
The production seems effectively to coast on the fame of its two stars. What a low, lazy bar to set at such a high price (some premium “package” seats have reportedly sold for £395). Times are tough for the arts but commercial theatre can surely be braver than this.
At the Savoy theatre, London, until 13 April.