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POIGNANT AND FUNNY: Big Dawg’s second Neil Simon production of the season is red hot

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Neil Simon’s timeless humor continues to strike a chord in “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”

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Big Dawg Productions opened their second show of the season—a companion piece to last month’s “The Odd Couple.” Another sold-out crowd flocked to the second Neil Simon production, “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” Perhaps, unintentionally, these two shows also share a connection with two of Wilmington’s former famous residents: Pat Hingle appeared in the first Broadway run of “The Odd Couple,” and Linda Lavin originated the role of Elaine on Broadway. She was nominated for a Tony for the performance.

loversBarney Cashman (Robb Mann) is a cautious fellow whose life appears to have passed him by—or so he thinks. One day he decides to pick up Elaine Navazio (Susan Auten), a woman lunching at the seafood restaurant he owns. This is our first introduction to Cashman, a mild-mannered, much-married family man who is unimaginative, unadventurous and, frankly, pretty much a loser by his own admission. Somehow he manages to pick a flat-out nymphomaniac on his first try.

Elaine is written to be sarcastic, and Auten hits those points with ease. For her, Elaine’s sarcasm might be a shield, but it is also a form of foreplay. Unfortunately, Barney is way too timid and insecure to understand that.

Auten exudes sexual enticement and desire but Barney is just too scared for her to act upon it—or even be in the same half of the room with her for more than a few seconds. Rather than an evening of erotic delight, it’s more cat and mouse, only with roles reversed from what Barney expected. In his own mind he is clearly much more suave than anyone would ever mistake him for in real life. Mann is wonderfully awkward and delightfully overcautious. Unfortunately, what he really wants more than sex is for someone to hear him lament his own life.

When he descends into his monologue about what brought him to this moment, he is more enraptured with the story than Elaine—or anything that could happen with Elaine. Director Randy Davis really heightens Barney’s turn on with the visual of Elaine participating in Barney’s instructions to sit down and listen to him with all the physical inference that it is an S&M game. I have to give both Auten and Mann credit: They both inspire empathy, the awkward world of having the table turned upon you and the humiliating experience of discovering the other person is unprepared for what you are offering.

In Act II, we meet Barney’s second attempt at an affair: Bobbi Michelle (Sarah Burns). She is gorgeous: blonde, curvy, bursting out of her clothes, and she never stops talking about her assorted sexual escapades (real or imagined). Barney is clearly taken—this is more what he has been fantasizing about (he and probably most men in the audience). Slowly, the extent of the insanity begins to dawn on Barney. Is he her knight in shining armor, her audience, or her victim?

I’m not really certain Burns actually pauses for a breath the entire time she is onstage. But Mann appears to be having a great time reacting to all of her outrageous behavior, of which he can’t get enough. If he wanted adventure, and she is sitting right in front of him. The palpable panic Mann began to exude in Act I  ratchets up considerably as he realizes the full import of what he has invited into his life in the form of Bobbie Michelle. For the audience, though, she remains a pretty, flirty sex pot—and she couldn’t be more fun to watch.

In Act III we meet Jeanette Fisher (Melissa Stanley), from Barney’s circle of friends. Stanley plays an even more uptight and terrified potential adulterer than Mann does. She is absolutely captivating in her discomfort. When she begins playing a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like question game with Barney (name three decent, loving, gentle people?), her rage and repulsion are a startling shift. But what each of them come to the rendezvous for is not what they find. Oddly, in each other’s actions they discover much more about themselves than either expect. Mann and Manley really have great chemistry and timing together: They build a crescendo that is climactic, psychotic and necessary. It’s pretty great to watch.

The night I attended, which was sold out, the audience actively was invested in Mann’s predicament. By the end of Act II, the guy behind me commented repeatedly he was worried this guy wasn’t going to get some. Each act begins with Mann opening his briefcase and removing booze and glasses. In Act I it’s a bottle of J&B scotch. When he pulled out a second bottle of vodka for Act II, the audience responded with approval. The addition of multiple packs of cigarettes resulted in a couple of people commenting loudly that Barney needed a cigar. With the appearance of champagne for Act III, the audience applauded their approval. Clearly, Mann won the audience over to his cause.

Though Simon is considered to be the great comedic stage writers of the 20th century, the dialogue is just as layered and difficult as any of his dramatic contemporaries—and for him, laughter was the way to talk about something deeper that was too scary to go at head-on. The show is very funny and fun but also quite poignant. What is real happiness? How do you want to look back at your life? What makes each day worthwhile? Is sex adventure, romance, love, or all three?

Though the show came out in 1969, the game of love hasn’t really changed much. We still send mixed signals, covet what we don’t have and wonder what would have happened if… Davis, Mann, Auten, Burns, and Manley have really brought out some very beautiful moments of truth in this laugh-filled play. No wonder the shows are selling out.

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers
Mar. 10-13, 17-20, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
$18-$20 •

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