Theater Review: BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (The Old Globe in San Diego)

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by Tony Frankel on August 5, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon’s second Broadway hit after Come Blow Your Horn, played a staggering 1,530 performances in its initial run, winning a Tony Award for director Mike Nichols. It’s somewhat inconceivable that a play this frothy, containing less pathos than Simon’s later works, would even make it to Broadway today. The work — which originally starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley (Jane Fonda joined Redford in the hit 1967 film) — firmly established Simon as a master of comedy with his sharp wit, firm structure, and vivid characterizations of likable middle-class urban dwellers. Director Jessica Stone — responsible for last year’s super-silly travesty Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood — wisely does not update the evergreen comedy in this charming Old Globe production, keeping it set in the year it opened, 1963.

The three-act play concentrates on a different odd couple than we’ll meet a few years later with Felix and Oscar: Here, we have free-spirited Corie (Kerry Bishé) and conservative lawyer Paul (Chris Lowell) as they navigate a rather sticky first month of wedded un-bliss in February, 1963. After a marathon six-day honeymoon at the The Plaza Hotel, the business of actually settling down and living together proves slippery, leading to a surprising blow-up.

Corie found an ugly, run-down fifth-floor Greenwich Village walk-up apartment, and is optimistic that the dump will become “their” place, while Paul is aghast with each shortcoming: no bath tub, little heat, a tiny bedroom, a skylight with a broken pane, and a seriously challenging kitchen. When out-of-shape Paul almost passes out from the long five floor climb (a great running gag), Simon makes the place a foil for terrific comedy.

The young bride appears to have no employment or interests besides furnishing their crummy apartment and picking up Paul’s shirts at the cleaners, while Paul is just trying to concentrate on his first court case. Not helping things is Corie’s bored, widowed, lonely, hypochondriac mother, Ethel Banks (Mia Dillon), and their eccentric, zany, cosmopolitan Albanian neighbor, Victor Velasco (Jere Burns), who currently lives in the building’s attic and is delinquent on his rent. Corie’s solution of setting Velasco up with her Mother may turn out well for the two elders, but threatens to send her marriage to Paul over the edge.

Instead of scurrying around the stage to define character, both the beautiful bouncy Bishé — ebullient and needy without being manic or screechy — and lovable Lowell — who has nuance and deft timing on his side — are supremely grounded and demonstrate lovable stage chemistry as the young couple. It’s easy to buy into their already complicated romance. And when cocktails get swigged in typical 60s fashion (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened the year before Barefoot), the amiable Mr. Lowell delivers a delightful drunk.

Compared to some of Simon’s later moms, Ethel is rather tame. Consciously or unconsciously, she has adopted a narrow image of herself as someone with a sensitive stomach, a bad back, and no need for romance. Dillon plays her with great restraint, avoiding the pitfall of playing for laughs, but I missed at least a few double takes. Burns truly shines as the bohemian who brings a pan full of what he calls “knichi” to dinner — an exotic recipe of eel, onion biscuits, salt, and other spices (in reality there is no such dish: Neil Simon created it just for the play).

My favorite of the night is Jake Millgard as telephone repair man Harry Pepper: it’s an extraordinary thing when understated, old-school timing collides with Simon’s dialogue: given very little stage time, Millgard is funny, sympathetic, sweet, shocked, and subdued.

Lindsay Jones’s collection of cool retro song selections should be on sale in the lobby; David Israel Reynoso’s Mad Men mod garments include a fabulous fur coat for Ethel; and Tobin Ost’s thigh-high cutaway walls forgo the usual proscenium box-set for this in-the-round theater, which actually helps to make the room feel small (and the Act II opener is one of the most magical scene changes I have seen in years — a genuine coup de théâtre). But Ms. Stone must be credited for making it all believable.

Barefoot In The Park, which is impossible to dislike, is a lesson in classic comic construction. Combining cute slap stick, door slamming angst, funny drunkenness, and Corie’s enthusiastic energy, Simon weaves the wacky threads together by playing one incident off another, and smoothly develops droll situations which are peppered with smart retorts and boisterous physicality. The universal lessons and stellar characterizations deliver a timeless look at newlyweds as they struggle through the initial stages of married life.

photos by Jim Cox

Barefoot in the Park
Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe in Balboa Park
Tues & Wed at 7:00; Thurs & Fri at 8:00; Sat at 2:00 & 8:00; Sun at 2:00 & 7:00
ends on August 26, 2018 EXTENDED to September 16, 2018
for tickets, call 619.234-5623 or visit The Old Globe

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