REVIEW: Marquette Theatre’s “California Suite” production

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Photo by Courtesy of Marquette Theatre

“California Suite” premiered during October at Helfaer Theatre.

A glow so microscopic I could hardly tell if I was imagining it danced across the darkened stage, until the lights came up and revealed a lit cigarette, held by senior in the College of Communication Emma Knott. 

The first of four half-hour scenes in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” all of which take place in the same hotel room across different residents’ stays, opens with Knott as Hannah, a witty working woman from New York. She’s come to California to see her ex-husband Billy (played by Matthew Torkilsen, a sophomore in the College of Communication) to decide where their daughter will be living.

The tension is palpable from the first second Torkilsen steps on the stage in his Hawaiian shirt and scrunched socks, a perfect juxtaposition to Knott’s shapeless black dress and tight bun. New York City-sophisticated Hannah and California-lax Billy banter angrily until Knott breaks down.

Despite some questionable blocking (directions on and when to move across the stage) such as random and unnatural walking around the small hotel room and the cliché look back to Hannah before Billy leaves, Knott’s performance is full of emotion, tears and bitter laughter, which effectively hooked the audience, including myself.

Scene two starts with a much more humorous subject: Adultery. Matthew Read, a sophomore in the College of Communication, opens the scene trying to get an unconscious woman out of his bed before his wife comes up to the room. Despite the heinousness of this display, Reed’s comedic timing and hilarious movements allow the audience to indulge in his crime: That is, until his wife, played by Tino Dentino, a senior in the College of Communication, shows up.

The comedy in this scene is less subtle than in the previous one, but it serves the actors well and laughs abounded from the audience until the surprisingly touching and heartbreaking final few lines by Detino. 

After a short intermission, the California suite is decorated with flowers brought on by stagehands dressed in hotel uniforms. Torkilsen and Knott return as married couple Sidney and Diana. They are about to attend the Academy Awards, where Diana is nominated for best actress. Before leaving, Sidney and Diana affirm their love for each other, and it finally seems as though we’ll see a happy couple in this play. Alas, when the couple return from the ceremonies, we see a drunk Diana and Sidney argue about Diana’s behavior upon losing the nomination, until the fight becomes about much more.

This was my favorite scene in the show. The actors’ ability to differentiate between the genuine hatred in their first scene and the love beneath the yelling in this one adds a level of delicacy to the lines. It also focuses on the ways beyond romantic love that couples can connect, with an emphasis on loving people in the only way you can. Although Diana and Sidney are not a typical husband and wife, their similarities can be seen in the way they play off of each other’s one liners and even in their clothes: Both wear light blue and slightly ridiculous costumes they complain about, really emphasizing how in sync they are.

Although all four short plays within “California Suite” are labeled as comedies, this final one is the only scene I found myself seeing as a true farce. All four actors take the stage, in their usual married pairs (Dentino and Reed, Torkilsen and Knott) on vacation together. Free from any sort of marital drama, Torkilsen and Reed continuously accidentally (and sometimes purposely) injure each other in perfectly-choreographed fight scenes. Detino and Knott lay on the bed in their own personal stupors, but make quippy comments that are much less over dramatic than the insults being traded by their husbands.

Other than a tendency to laugh at their own lines and fight moves, both Torkilsen and Reed shine bright in this scene. As the final scene, the audience leaves with a warm feeling of a typical comedy rather than the bittersweet relationships of the first three.

“California Suite” is an amusing and funny (though more in a tongue-in-cheek way than in a laugh-out-loud way) classic comedy. To catch more shows by Marquette Theatre this semester, look for tickets to “Melancholy Play” starting Nov. 12 at Helfaer Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online.

This story was written by Nora McCaughey. She can be reached at eleanor.mccaughey@marquette.edu.