As the weather turns to the cooler days of autumn, 1st Stage invites you to take a trip to the warm weather of Palm Beach in Michael McKeever’s frothy farce Suite Surrender. Your vacation involves more than just a trip to sunny Florida; you also enjoy a trip back in time to the 1940s, an era when Hollywood turned out entertaining screwball comedies.
It is 1942 and two of Hollywood’s biggest (and at times scariest) divas are both performing at a USO benefit. Complication number one: the two ladies have a legendary ongoing feud that turns violent if they come near each other. Complication number two: the performers both wind up booked into the same Presidential Suite.
The Palm Beach Royale Hotel’s beleaguered general manager, Bernard T. Dunlap (Matt Dougherty), must try to keep the two ladies from realizing they are in separate bedrooms in the same suite. His task is made even more difficult by his less than savvy staff, a society matron eager to associate with the celebrities, and a gossip columnist looking for dirt (the frequently abused Dora del Rio, portrayed by Nora Achrati).
The introductory exposition is made less painful by the antics of a funny pair of easily confused bellhops, Francis (Daniel Corey) and Otis (Sam Phillips). They are the old style movie bellhops, who wear outfits that make them look like the performers for an offstage giant organ grinder and who literally hop when they start moving. Also providing a little spice to the introductory background is Mrs. Everett P. Osgood (Lisa Hodsoll), President of the Palm Beach Ladies for Unity or the PBLFU (with the accent on the “FU”).
The story kicks into gear with the separate arrivals of the two great divas. Claudia McFadden (Farrell Parker) has beautiful sharp features that lend themselves to her sharp and scary treatment of everyone around. She saves her harshest treatment for her long-time personal secretary, the pitiful Mr. Pippet (Bradley Foster Smith).
The oft-married Athena Sinclair (Katie Nigsch-Fairfax) is every bit as grand and demanding, although marginally kinder to her own personal secretary, Murphy Stevens (Stephanie Roswell). Murphy is still lovesick over the boyfriend she thought was overseas or dead but who instead . . . turns up in the hotel! (Who would have figured it?).
1st Stage’s production of Suite Surrender is a master’s class in how to construct a farce and make it work on stage. Even if you abstain from reading the program, you will quickly deduce that Michael McKeever is an experienced playwright. He manages to take practically every tool in the farce-writer’s handbook and include it in somewhere in this delightful slip of a play. Slamming doors, mistaken identity, physical comedy, fast-paced action, and ever building comic tension are all present in the work.
The success of even a well-written farce depends heavily on the performing company, and Suite Surrender is in more than capable hands with 1st Stage. The suite designed by the aptly-named Steven Royal has an opulent, tropical feel. The lavish costumes of Dan Iwaniec and the period hairstyles effectively transport you to 1942. Every detail of Suite Surrender, right down to the period pre-show big band music, demonstrates the loving attention of the production team.
The comedy found on the page is wonderfully supplemented by the direction of Rex Daugherty. Every bit of comic business (e.g., the nearly falling vase of flowers, the body bouncing off the sofa, the door slamming into an unlucky bystander, the manipulated toy dog) felt fresh and well-timed, even when you could see it coming.
As for the cast, every member sells their characterizations with winning energy and complete commitment. When the full horrors of the situation dawned on poor Mr. Pippet, Bradley Foster Smith honestly seemed on the verge of apoplexy. The suffering of Matt Dougherty as the hotel’s general manager is also terribly funny.
As the action builds, the audience’s laughter becomes more frequent and louder. Further, when the inevitable collapse of the farce’s pretense occurs, McKeever has a clever twist to unveil.
If you have every enjoyed a quality farce like Noises Off or Lend Me a Tenor, you will find Suite Surrender not far behind in entertainment value. Should Mr. McKeever visit the 1st Stage production of his play, I suspect he would have very few notes and great appreciation for the devoted cast and creative team.
Suite Surrender by Michael McKeever, directed by Rex Daugherty, featuring Nora Achrati, Daniel Corey, Matt Dougherty, Katie Nigsch Fairfax, Lisa Hodsoll, Farrell Parker, Sam Phillips, Stephanie Roswell, and Bradley F. Smith. Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Steven McKnight