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On the one hand, it is a comedy of manners in the best sense of the word. It belongs firmly in that tradition of drawing room comedy that in its heyday was the substance of Broadway. One could expect good acting, opulent sets, and just enough substance to leave the audience fulfilled. Such plays ran on Broadway, and then were expected to take to the road. Their casts were drawn from the finest actors, and by the time the show arrived in Los Angeles, one could expect to find distinguished Hollywood stars. For the most part, such shows went out of style some thirty years ago, and with them went the road itself, only to be replaced by regional repertory companies and their seasons of Broadway revivals.
Given its subject matter, the play's best-known progenitor would be Boys in the Band, that now-classic treatment of gay relations soured by one too many glasses of champagne. As a drama, however, this new play by Geoffrey Hassman reminds one of Night Mother, Marsha Norman 's Pulitzer Prize winning play about a night-long suicide threat made good. Unlike its distinguished predecessor, Neil ' s Garden never quite becomes the drama its subject matter portends. In the first place, the jokes start too soon and never really end, thus providing comic cover to Neil's suicidal intent. In the second place, Neil never commits the act, thereby saving the audience the anguish of suffering over the fate of a most likable character. Indeed, as played by William Bogert, Neil is the most attractive suicidal interior designer one is ever likely to meet. Bogert has a marvelous voice and moves with the grace one once expected of men his age.
Did I mention that Neil 's Garden essays the relationship of an older than middle-aged gay couple? Neil 's partner, Timothy, played by Michael Warren Powell, has the thankless task of making sure his lover never drinks the death cocktail he keeps in his refrigerator to end what is becoming an increasingly unbearable and, it would seem, untreatable, form of cancer. To Mr. Bogert 's stolid Neil, Mr. Powell plays the flighty, semi-hysterical lover. It would be a performance of a stereotype were it not for the actor 's ability to show the fragility behind his histrionics. The audience is finally moved by Timothy's helplessness before the inevitability of his partner's demise and, like him, hopes Neil 's death will come later rather than sooner.
The set, the drawing room of an affluent interior decorator, has to be mentioned because, like the genre, it reminds one so much of what New York theatre used to be. it functions as the play's third character. Designer John McDermott has done a magnificent job creating the indulgent opulence one would expect for a designer who fields calls from European royalty. It is a cross between a Mexican cathouse and Truman Capote's worst nightmare. In other words, it is fabulously in the worst best taste.
Suicide may be no laughing matter, but in Neil 's Garden we learn what makes the laughs necessary.
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