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Forest Moon Theater’s California Suite Is a "Sweet" Source of Laughs and Smiles

The "Visitor from Philadelphia" segment of the Forest Moon Theater's production of <em>California Suite</em> stars (from left) Danny Mullins, Ashley Jones, and Karen Marchuska (photo by David Leone)

The “Visitor from Philadelphia” segment of the Forest Moon Theater’s production of California Suite stars (from left) Danny Mullins, Ashley Jones, and Karen Marchuska (photo by David Leone)

Picture this: In the distant future, archeologists unearth copies of Neil Simon’s work. With only these scripts as artifacts, future historians assume that ours was a society steeped in wit, that lightning-fast banter, seasoned with sarcasm, was the norm of our time. Understandable.

But for all the fun and laughter contained in California Suite, that is not the whole story. There is a richness in Simon’s observations of human interaction that affords a satisfaction beyond that of our giggles and grins and guffaws.

Wake Forest, NC’s Forest Moon Theater production of Neil Simon’s California Suite at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre for the Arts in Wake Forest is a fast-paced, laugh-a-minute look at four different examples of human interaction.

We can only describe this play as a series of four one-acts, each of which is set in Suite 203-204 of the Beverly Hills Hotel. There is a living room and a bedroom (each with a door leading out to the hotel’s hallway).

The ” fourth wall” to the suite is the hotel’s exterior wall (which includes a “window,” through which characters on occasion look to see the parking lot). Upstage, we see a door to a closet and a doorway to a bathroom.

Director Lisa Binion and technical director Todd Houseknecht teamed up to design this very realistically furnished suite. And we tip our hats to Binion for the decision to costume the set-change crew as a bellhop and a room service maid.

When the curtain rises, the year is 1975; and we hear disc jockey Casey Kasem’s Top 40 radio show on the sound system, firmly grounding us in the timeframe.

The first scene is titled “Visitor from New York.” A woman has checked in and is waiting for her ex-husband to meet her there to discuss the custody situation for their 17-year-old daughter.

Sarah Richardson plays Hannah Warren as a very uptight, no-nonsense business woman. Much of the comedy of this scene is derived from her straitlaced, yet brutally honest attitude.

Mike McGee gives us screenwriter Billy Warren, who is striving for a more relaxed, “modern” (should we say “trendy”?) lifestyle. There is a tenderness beneath his combative surface that actually creates a bit of hope in our minds for this broken family’s future.

"Visitor from New York" stars stars Sarah Richardson and Mike McGee (photo by David Leone)

“Visitor from New York” stars stars Sarah Richardson and Mike McGee (photo by David Leone)

Next up is “Visitor from Philadelphia” — a scene in which a woman arrives to join her husband who checked in the previous day. He tries desperately to keep her from learning an uncomfortable secret.

Marvin Michaels (Danny Mullins) is in town for his nephew’s bar mitzvah; he wakes up next to Bunny (Karen Marchska), who will simply not wake up and leave. Marchska manages to keep her body in a state of dead-weight limpness whenever Marvin tries to move her. Mullins conjures up the requisite level of urgency and keeps us in stitches with his desperately manic behavior as he considers every possible solution to his problem.

Ashley Rebecca Jones plays a Millie Michaels (the wife) who remains believably clueless at the start. When “the jig is up,” Jones shows Millie vacillating between a state of pain-and-anger and a thirst for vengeance that she laces with an acerbic wit and sarcasm.

After intermission comes “Visitors from London” (directed by “Guest Director” Bunny Safron), Actress Diana Nichols (played by director Lisa Binion) has been nominated for an Oscar®. Her husband Sidney Nichols (Tom Barbieri) is a London antique-store operator who has made the trip to the U.S. with her. We see them before and after the Oscars ceremony.

Binion expertly navigates her character’s pre-ceremony jitters (AND the character’s transparent attempt to hide them) and the to-be-expected post-show drunkenness. Barbieri’s character is appropriately supportive, but also teasingly playful. There is an oddity in their relationship with which they need to come to terms. Binion and Barbieri season this scene with some touching moments.

The final scene is “Visitors from Chicago,” which gives us a pair of couples on the final leg of an extended vacation together. The Hollenders (Bill Segreve and Dara Lyon Warner) and the Franklyns (Lisa Merritt and Steve Migdon) have overdosed on each other, and things are coming to a head. High-speed slapstick comedy is the order of the day, and this foursome pulls it off without a hitch. (Note: The program mistakenly calls Ms. Franklyn “Beth” rather than “Gert.”)

The Department of Picky-Picky wants to note: from a technical point of view, out of the several Forest Moon shows that we have attended at The Renaissance Centre, this production makes the best use yet of this facility. We were impressed by the set design, the sound (designed by Tom Arman), and the lighting (designed by David Petrone and operated by Mary Page Hopkins).

As always, a tip of the hat to costume designer Gayle Jordan — every stitch of every article of clothing fairly screamed “mid-1970s”; thanks, especially, for the cute little tennis skirts!

Neil Simon is a master of every conceivable kind of humor; he packs it into this script, and this cast-and-crew team delivers it in spades. If you are ready for a couple of hours of raucous laughter, laced with some knowingly appreciative smiles, the Forest Moon Theater’s production of California Suite could easily be your cup of tea.

There are only three more performances of this show: at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22nd, and Saturday, Sept. 23rd, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24th. The Renaissance Centre is located at 405 Brooks St. in Wake Forest.

"Visitors from London" stars Tom Barbieri and director Lisa Binion (photo by David Leone)

“Visitors from London” stars Tom Barbieri and director Lisa Binion (photo by David Leone)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 16th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall:

The Forest Moon Theater presents CALIFORNIA SUITE at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23 and 3 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre for the Arts, , 405 S. Brooks St., Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587.

TICKETS: $15 in advance and $18 the day of the show ($13 in advance and $16 the day of the show for students and seniors 65+), except $12 per person for groups of 20 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-435-9560 or

SHOW: California Suite,, and


VENUE:,, and


NOTE: According to the Forest Moon Theater, this play contains “adult subject matter and strong language.”


California Suite (1976 Los Angeles and Broadway comedy): (Samuel French, Inc.), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

The Script: (Google Books).

Neil Simon (Bronx, NY-born playwright and screenwriter): (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Lisa Binion (Raleigh, NC director): (official website) and (Facebook page).

Bunny Safron (Raleigh, NC director): (Facebook page).


Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Melanie and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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