Neil Simon is as close to a sure-fire hit as community theater gets, and the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove adds a richly observed version of Simon's "California Suite" to what is shaping up as a sure-fire season. Simon isn't simple to stage; comedy never is. The trick is to make it look simple, not forced, and director Cherie L. Brown succeeds handily in three of the play's four segments.
"California Suite" is vintage Simon, with two scenes dependent on wordplay, two on situations--all featuring the same four players. The action takes place in the Beverly Hills Hotel, carefully duplicated by set designer Gil Morales. The Gem's production tilts toward the broader laughs and physical humor of Scenes 2 and 4, with strong performances by Joe Arnold and Lynda Scarlino providing the ballast.
Scene 1 uncomfortably reunites a long-divorced couple, forced to meet to discuss custody of their daughter. Kathryn Burns is the embittered New Yorker confronting her laid-back ex-husband, played by Wayne C. Watkins. Their timing is at odds--she flings poisoned barbs and he ducks, but the rhythm is off and the results are forced. Their chemistry clicks, however, in Scene 3, with Burns as a frantic British actress in town for the Academy Awards and Watkins as her bemused husband. They cautiously pick their way through Simon's irony-laden dialogue in a beautifully played scene, bit by bit revealing the emotional riptide under all the brittle banter.