In some circles, Neil Simon has the unfair reputation of being a slick laugh machine with no heart. Another visit to "Plaza Suite," courtesy of Garden Grove Community Theatre, verifies that Simon is a superb play-by-play man of the human comedy who treats his people affectionately without losing objectivity.

Sadly, this fact is unapparent in Garden Grove's production under the misguided direction of Robert Michael Conrad. Conrad demonstrates little understanding of Simon's material by ignoring central (and crucial) issues in favor of playing for the broadest--and in several cases cheapest--of laughs. The sporadically nice moments set up by the staging are not sustained as the director continually sets up for a big laugh instead of a more satisfying chuckle. Also, the timing in the three acts is undisciplined.

Conrad's Plaza just doesn't seem to be based in reality. The bellhops and waiters treat their guests with rude familiarity instead of the polite detachment that so unmistakably marks the service at a fine hostelry. The sense of time and place is also sloppy. According to the dialogue, the first act is set in 1968 yet an actress wears contemporary boots which she calls her galoshes. In Act II, we seem to be in 1985 with references to David Letterman and Arnold Schwarzenegger followed by the unexplicable mention of Sheilah Graham, the show business columnist of the '50s and '60s.

Nevertheless, it is Act II that works the best with Peter Grant's amusingly detailed performance of the Hollywood producer trying to seduce his old school flame, played by the delightful Selena McCoy. Grant and McCoy are able to bring out a few subtleties and seem to enjoy themselves very much. Simon's sublimely farcical Act III finds two acting styles at war--Tricia Jordan's nicely underplayed concern as a mother of the bride versus the bombastic and highly derivative caricature of Jim Daley as the blue-collar father.

"Plaza Suite" continues through Feb. 2 at Garden Grove Community Theatre in Eastgate Park, corner of Chapman Avenue and St. Marks Street in Garden Grove. For information, call 897-5122.

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