“California Suite” Opens at Mud Creek Theater Feb. 13

Writer / Ray Compton

No one can accuse director Carla Crandall of backing away from big challenges during her theatrical career in central Indiana.

Indeed, she has gone keyboard-to-keyboard with famous scripts, illustrious Hollywood directors and award-toting Broadway play writers in her productions at Mud Creek Barn in Geist (9740 East 86th) and the Belfry Theatre (Noblesville). When you think of productions such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “the Producers” and “Blithe Spirits” playing in the heartland of the Midwest, you are probably witnessing the directing skills of the northern Indiana native.

Starting Feb. 13, Crandall will add another legendary play/film to her resume. She will be directing seven performances of “California Suite” at the Mud Creek Barn.

So, buckle up, theatre folks. Crandall promises to have all actors rolling and one-liners flowing in one of Neil Simon’s hits, which started on Broadway in 1976 with 445 performances to date and at the movie houses in 1978.

“Neil Simon just knows how to the write,” said Crandall of the now 87-year-old writer who was born on July 4 and who helped script famous television weekly shows such as “The Phil Silvers Show,” “Your Show of Shows” and “The Gary Moore Show.” His cohorts included Hollywood wordsmiths Carl Reiner, Howie Morris and Mel Brooks.

Simon’s list of theatre conquests started with “Barefoot in the Park” in 1963. Two years later, he turned out “The Odd Couple,” which eventually evolved into both a movie (with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon) and television series (Jack Klugman and Tony Randall).

The ultimate perfect Simon storm on Broadway came in 1966 when four of his plays – “Sweet Charity,” “The Star Spangled Girl,” “Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park” – were all playing in New York at the same time. He eventually weaved 34 plays and he has achieved the highest total of Oscar and Tony writing awards.

“California Suite” sits near the top of his parade of standouts.

The play, originally set in 1976, occurs in Suite 203-204 at the Plaza Suite in Los Angeles. The set includes a living room and bedroom. The two acts are broken down to two scenes each and feature the trials and tribulations of visitors from New York, Philadelphia, London and Chicago. As with most of Simon’s work, the four stories focus on realism, humor and seriousness. Punchlines are quick and daring, sometimes following moments of despair.

“Each character has something that is very unhappy for them,” said Crandall, who started in the theatre as an actress in 1976. “They are at a phase of life when everything is not good for them and we have to bring that out in each one.”

But Crandall promises the customer “to come prepared to laugh.”

Storylines included Marvin Michaels from Philadelphia, who fumbles through the awkwardness of finding a drunk and passed out prostitute (Bunny) in his bed as he awaits the arrival of his wife, Mllie; actress Diana Nichols of London, who is desperate to win an Academy Award as her husband, Sidney, fumbles through failure to cover up his sexual orientation; and the Chicago foursome of Stu and Greg Franklyn and Mort and Beth Hollander, who collided physically and mentally in a mixed doubles tennis match.

The suite’s first visitors are the separated New York couple Hannah and William Warren, who are going through a divorce and need to decide the future full-time home for their teenage daughter.

Actors in the movie included Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and Matthau. Ironically, Smith won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Diana.

Fonda, Caine et al may not be at the Mud Creek Barn in February, but Crandall expects top performances from her cast of local actors.

“The cast and support people have all been terrific,” said Crandall. “They will make it work. They will make it a special night.”

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