LAUGHING ‘TIL THE END: Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ perfectly closes the doors of Red Barn Studio Theatre
Thalian Association’s final show at the Red Barn Studio Theatre is Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” Directed by James Bowling, it really is a wonderful farewell to the space, which is being sold by former Wilmingtonians and theatre supporters Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas. Full disclosure on my bias toward Simon: I adore his work (indeed, I spent a significant portion of my young life hoping to become Neil Simon when I grew up). “Barefoot in the Park” debuted in 1963 and was Simon’s second hit, after “Come Blow Your Horn” and before “The Odd Couple.”
Corie (Amanda Young) and Paul Bratter (Josh Bailey) are newlyweds—so newly, they have been honeymooning at the plaza for the last week. Alas, they are about to spend their first night in their new home: a fifth-floor walk-up in an old brownstone in Manhattan. Did I mention fifth floor? Because Corie didn’t mention it to anyone—not to the telephone guy (Charles Calhoun), the delivery guy from Bloomingdale’s (Joel Parry), her mother (Denise Bass), and especially not to her new husband, Paul.
They have an eccentric upstairs neighbor, Mr. Velasco (Steve Rassin), who utilizes their bedroom window to break into his own apartment. Known as “The Bluebeard of 48th Street,” Mr. Velasco actually has one of the more noticeable transformations throughout the script. He begins with a pretty smarmy pass at Corie and ends as an unexpected hero. Rassin makes his transformation not only believable but incredibly funny.
Of all the stock characters Simon pulls into the script, my favorite far and away is Denise Bass’ Ethel Banks—mother to the irrepressible Corie. “Denise Bass is playing my mother,” I commented to my date.
“She’s playing most people’s mothers,” he countered.
Poor Ethel—she is trying so hard to be supportive of her willful, headstrong and highly unrealistic daughter. But she is feeling lonely in a way she never has before: Her baby left home and is all grown up. It is a tough-enough life for Ethel without five flights of stairs separating her child from reality. If she wanted, Bass could really take Ethel over-the-top; however, by opting for restrained concern, her performance is funnier and more compelling. As a counterpoint to the smooth-talking con man, Velasco Bass manages to remind what substance is—it is not boring so much as dependable.
Young quite beautifully and innocently brings the free-spirited eccentric artist Corie to life. She inhabits Corie totally, even down to her highly questionable theory about how to light a fire. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Paul, her straight-laced new husband, trying to make it as a young lawyer, is irresistibly attracted to all her joie de vivre. (Yes, it is the setup for “Dharma and Greg.” If Simon were starting his writing career today, my date commented, he would work in the world of TV sitcoms. I nodded.) In fact, Simon began his career writing for TV, which he immortalized in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” The setup, with familiar characters facing painful but not insurmountable life quandaries, is a comfortable one. Perhaps it is why Simon remains so popular.
“Barefoot in the Park” takes place in New York in the early ‘60s, so getting a telephone installed is a key and important part of dealing with housekeeping—and delivery guys are a part of getting wedding gifts home. Joel Perry’s brief cameo as the winded and much-abused delivery guy is absolutely hilarious. Charles Calhoun gives us a soft-hearted but iron-fronted telephone installer. He’s not happy about the stairs, but he is hopeful about the newlyweds. He’s seen a few things over the years, and even if this couple are not sure they can get through this, he has faith in them—and by extension, in all of us, to learn to adjust. That benevolent and joyful smile he flashes when they aren’t looking is one of the truly lovely details of this show.
But whatever else “Barefoot in the Park” is, it is a love story. Young and Bailey take the audience on the roller-coaster ride of their new marriage. Bailey’s Paul embraces new responsibilities as breadwinner (remember, 1960s) very seriously. Someone has to pay for the five flights of stairs! Corie’s new role of homemaker (remember, 1960s) is hitting challenges, too. She has never had to be around Paul without being the center of his attention before. This is new—and, frankly, she is lonely at home all day. Doesn’t he know sprites and fairies die without attention?
With the best of intentions, and very little forethought or life experience, Young’s Corie leaps off the cliff in search of adventure that will make her life interesting and her new husband remember her. Frankly, I wanted to leap with her. She looks like she is having so much fun. When Paul and Corie have their first serious domestic squabble, both Young and Bailey forego comedic sarcasm for the heartrending thrusts of absurdity we wield at the ones we love most. The things we say to hurt the one person we would never want to cause pain are some of the most tragically funny actually. Simon captures that paradox, but Young and Bailey breathe life into them. All couples have to learn how to live together, and even more, all couples have to push each other to the limit to find out where it is. Young and Bailey illustrate this fearful exploration so realistically, my date had to ask if everything would work out in the end?
“It’s Neil Simon,” I assured him. Meaning: In spite of improbable struggles, yes, everything works out in the end. And audiences will laugh heartily both with and at the characters along the way.