He has won more Oscars and Tonys than any other writer and his legacy continues keeping audiences in stitches at 88 years young. Neil Simon’s work spans five decades of quick-witted banter and zingers. Big Dawg will continue their Simon fest, so to speak, after closing Simon’s popular “The Odd Couple” last month. This week they will open 1969’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” which ran for 706 performances on Broadway in its debut, and featured Wilmington’s previous star resident Linda Lavin in the female lead, Elaine. Elaine is a sexy badgirl, who likes whiskey, cigarettes and men—particularly taken men. Director Randy Davis has cast local actor Susan Auten in the role, and Auten is adoring the sarcastic wit Elaine carries throughout the show.
“It’s interesting to see how some people choose to deal with unhappiness in their lives,” Auten says. “Some people just go with it and others find a way, right or wrong, to escape from or try to numb their pain through alcohol, drugs or in this case, people.’
Elaine’s histrionic personality is basically a mask of her pain, while her promiscuity is her way to connect and escape simultaneously. “Although that makes the play sound waaaay more serious than it is,” Auten quips.
Elaine is one of three women that protagonist Barney Cashman decides to pursue. She may even be the audience’s least favorite, according to Auten.
“She’s not very nice,” Auten describes. “Although, there may be some part of them that wishes they could have the courage to be as bluntly honest as she is and go after what they want without fear.”
The actress suspects folks will connect mostly with Barney and “his fear of not truly having lived his life to the fullest.” Played by Robb Mann, Barney is a middle-aged, restaurateur who has been married for 23 years. Yet, he has a case of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), as the younger generation is embracing the sexual revolution. Wanting to embark on this new lifestyle, Barney decides to have multiple affairs.
“He married his high school sweetheart after returning from WWII,” Davis explains of the plot. “He now finds himself living in a world very different than the world he grew up in—a world he feels may have left him behind. He has trouble relating to this younger generation that grew up in the age of free love. I think many people can relate to that. He just wants to experience what everyone else has been, even though he is terrified to do so.”
And so he meets Elaine, along with mad woman Bobbi, played by Sarah Burns. Barney also woos his wife’s best friend, Jeanette, played by Melissa Stanley. Jeanette, though sullen, stands on a moral high ground, which makes the pairing rather unlikely.
“When I reread the play last spring, Melissa was who I pictured playing Jeanette,” Davis tells. “I am so pleased I get to direct her again after working together on both ‘Dearly Beloved’ and ‘Christmas Belles.’”
Davis and Stanley’s working relationship always has revolved around humor in some form or fashion. Aside from the Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten plays Davis directed Stanley in for Big Dawg, the two once shared a stage in one of Wilmington’s first comedy improv troupes, The Comically Impaired, 15 years ago. “Melissa’s deadpan depression is just as hilarious as I imagined [in the role of Jeanette,]” Davis states.
Davis is quite pleased watching Mann as Barney, too. “Robb brings an awkward everyman quality to the role that is both funny and endearing,” he touts. “Barney’s three attempts at an affair are sarcastic.”
It’s quite the appeal of Simon’s writing, according to Davis. The playwright can take outlandish situations and make them human—even across generations of viewers. Though sexual humor in 2016 may oftentimes seem more raunchy or salacious, Davis doesn’t think it deters from the era of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” Topical references may have changed and technology may be more advanced to bring home the message today, but the humor still stands.
“I think you could take the play back 200 years to be performed in the past, and the audience would love it just as much,” Davis tells. “He shows us people we all know behaving in ways we wish we all could. What I love about Simon is his ability to create characters that are relatable.”
In the ‘90s, Davis attended Appalachian State University, when his professor, Ed Pilkington, cleaned out his library. He chose plays he thought students would some day work on and passed on the scripts. “He told me that Barney would be a great role for me in a couple decades,” Davis remembers. “Sure enough, if I wasn’t directing this show, I would love to play the role.”
The set design for “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” will look familiar to theatre-goers who saw “The Odd Couple” in January. Oscar Madison’s apartment is now Barney’s mother’s living quarters, only with updated paint and decorations. Madison’s kitchen is her closet, and his bedrooms are now her kitchen.
“Set and lighting director Dallas LaFon has given us a set that works beautifully for both plays,” Davis says, who also informed that every show in 2016 from Big Dawg pairs with another show. “Mr. Simon even helped us out by having the same two sound cues in both shows: a doorbell and a toilet flushing.”