NEW YORK — A Frenchman named Albert Donay enters the private room in the elegant Parisian restaurant, looks at the only other person in the room and asks, "Hello, am I in the right place?"
And since this fellow in the ill-fitting rented tux looks suspiciously like the Fonz, and since all the guests who turn up with invitations for the soigne affair seem American but have French names and talk easily about tough grown-up sex, and since the characters have been created by Broadway's last primary source of old-time, middle-aged, middle-class, all-American humor, audiences may be forgiven for wondering whether we are in the right place too.
Indeed, "The Dinner Party," which opened Wednesday at the Music Box in a blaze of praise from its Washington, D.C., tryout, often feels like a foreign visitor to the house of Neil Simon characters. The house guest arrives with fresh material for conversation, but seems torn between belief in its own identity and an insecure desire to fit in with the regulars. Henry Winkler and John Ritter are part of one of the more delightfully offbeat American ensembles in recent Broadway memory and there is smart direction by John Rando. But Simon's 31st play (which had its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum) is too conflicted in style and content to sit on the top shelf with his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers" or his autobiographical trilogy that began in 1983 with "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
On the other hand, the dark farce is more challenging than much of Simon's recent work and, except for some lazy tragi-wisecracking that suggests a nostalgia reflex for familiar territory, the desire to dig deeper into his usual human comedy of relationships takes his audience into some pleasurably dangerous ground. He also abandons his conventional structure for more modern rhythms of a tight intermissionless arch that spans just over 90 minutes.
The one-act tension is useful, since Simon intends to relax his audience with the playful mystery-party genre before moving into the dark side. Or, as one of the characters notes, "It is already a farce; we're aiming for a higher form of absurdity."
Three divorced men, all strangers, arrive at a party with invitations they believe came from a man who turns out to be their divorce lawyer. There are no waiters; the men must pour their own champagne, and--one way to know they're not Americans--nobody is complaining about the lack of food.
The next two guests turn out to be, natch, ex-wives and the last is both an ex-wife and the woman who created this crystal parlor game and unlikely psychodrama. Simon has established his characters with fascinating care and some of his riskiest mean humor. Ritter, in his Broadway debut, is cool, if not quite imperious enough, as the owner of an antique bookstore and failed novelist. Winkler, in what is virtually his first Broadway appearance, is very sweet as the hapless slob who rents cars, paints people in rented cars and follows the scent of women around as if Snoopy on the hunt for lunch. Winkler even makes us almost forgive Simon's unfunny running gag about the man's injured finger from a "bow-tie injury." Almost.
Veanne Cox gives a crowd-pleasing performance as an almost catatonically trapped woman who married and divorced the slob twice, who wears lilac with her orange hair (exquisite costumes by Jane Greenwood) and, in an aerial burst of animation worthy of Jules Feiffer's dancing woman, gives us a glimpse of the spirit inside. Jan Maxwell is especially grave, funny and graceful as the successful novelist who threatened her husband's career enough to affect his sexual fantasies about her. Maxwell actually maintains her character's dignity while having an unnecessary attack of claustrophobia in the locked room and trying to suck the air out from under the door.
But these four, in various ways, are recognizable Simon characters. New and most provocative are the older, richer couple, people whose games of love go far beyond--some might say below--what Simon's audiences might expect.
Len Cariou is deliciously cruel and suave as the wealthy menswear tycoon. We assume such considerations are part of the party. Penny Fuller matches him, sordid detail for detail, as his ex-wife who learned a definition of unconditional love that continued after he got bored. Simon has given these two people some of his most tough, gratifying, original material, including the conviction that "the unscrupulous are as entitled to love as anyone else."
Fuller's Gabrielle is wonderful as the older woman, a powerful but not always secure seductress. As she locks the doors on John Lee Beatty's elegant set with the Fraggonard mural, she raises the stakes on the game by asking guests to confess the worst thing and the best thing their spouse ever did to them. The confession mode seems more American than French, but Simon clearly thinks his audiences will be able to handle the subject more comfortably if the people's names don't sound like theirs. Since he has his successful novelist ask, almost defensively, "Why should I write what the public doesn't want?" we assume such considerations are never quite far enough from the party.
Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday.
* "The Dinner Party," the Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., New York, NY. Telecharge: (800) 432-7250.