Barefoot in the Park, by Neil Simon. Directed by Clayton Phillips. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Craig Bryant Belwood, Rebecca Tucker; photo: David Levinstein
"This is the first thing I'm doing for you."
Rex Smith, Susan Cella; photo: David Levinstein
It's a new marriage for Corie Banks, whoops, Corie Bratter and Paul Bratter. They've spent six idyllic days and nights at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and are moving into their first apartment in town. She has found it and she loves it and she's ordered furniture and lamps and things for it and she is waiting for them to arrive. It's all just so ideal. Just what they want. Except.
Except she forgot to mention that there is no real bedroom, that the skylight is broken and that it's a six-story walk-up. Except that the color she picked for the "room" came out wrong. Except that no one can make it up the six flights without getting winded and having palpitations, not even her young virile lawyer of a husband. Except that the upstairs neighbor, a roué named Victor Velasco, has to use their apartment to crawl out along the ledge to reach his apartment. And that's just half of the first act's comic revelations.
This was Neil Simon's third Broadway play in three years and his third hit in a row. Two years later he would write "The Odd Couple" and be permanently ensconced on the list of top American playwrights. Of the first four this is perhaps his most accessible. It celebrates marriage like nothing else he ever wrote. It showcases youthful optimism and is a highly romantic essay on romance and its difficulties. First produced in 1963 it is a remarkably current piece; it hasn't dated at all and still speaks to the modern age in a very direct and delicous way. As presented at the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut with a lovely company of players it is a delightful way to pass a few hours. You leave the theater feeling genuinely entertained.
Rebecca Tucker, Susan Cella; photo: David Levinstein
Susan Cella plays Corie's mother. A veteran Broadway actress, she moves in on the memory of Mildred Natwick in the original (and the film version) and very nearly outdoes her. There isn't a false moment in her performance as Ethel Banks. She is funny, charming, rather disarming in a diquieting way, romantically fussy and curiously delectable. She brings to Mrs. Banks all of the qualities one might hope for. Whether overdressed or over-large kimono-clad she helps the comedy along.
Rex Smith, star of "The Pirates of Penzance," plays the oddly attractive neighbor Victor Velasco. Smith has matured into a very reliable actor who takes this curious character role through some smartly romantic moments. He enables Corie's kookiness with an affable grin, inspires Ethel Bank's self-conscious restraint into blossom and even brings some much needed tension-relaxing motivation to Paul. The role allows Smith to be both himself and a brassy character at the same time and this wedding of differences makes Victor into a delightful human being whose quirks are just quirks, keeping him more human and accessible than usual.
Small character roles are neatly taken by Mark Boissy as the Delivery Man and John Champion as the Telephone Man. Each role is a gem and both get fine attention from their interpretors.
Paul, the new husband and anxious young lawyer, is played by Craig Bryant Belwood. The actor does fussy guy nicely. He also brings the show home in the final scene once Paul has let go of his libido and opened himself up to the fun experience of just living out loud. Belwood has very nice qualities that come through even his most controlling moments as Paul. He plays well with others, character and actor, and that comes across nicely. As a young romantic lead, he is well cast in this production.
Rebecca Tucker, Rex Smith, Craig Bryant Belwood; photo: David Levinstein
Much of the play's success rides on Corie Bratter, the bride as new homemaker. Rebecca Tucker delivers well in the role, her first act enthusiasm adding to the pleasure of everyone else's defeat at the climb up to this apartment (a well-done set by Randall Parsons). Tucker displays excellent comedy timing, getting all of her laughs as a result. She also is an expert cryer, outdoing even Jane Fonda in this role's self-afflicted emotional moments. I truly enjoyed Tucker's work in this part; she keeps the show real.
Kurt Alger's costumes and wigs felt exactly right for these characters and Jamie Broderick designed the lighting to emphasize the place and the outside world as much as for the people on stage. This team worked very well together with director Clayton Phillips whose work on this play is outstanding. The very 1960s appeal of the piece was maintained, and yet he brought a very 2018 sensibility into the play bringing it up to date in feel while leaving things as they were written more than fifty years ago.
This is a production I suggest people go to see. The show is worth a drive and the drive is valued for more than just the play; it's a chance to sit and watch theater in the kind of summer stock barn that those of us who love that experience cherish.
Barefoot in the Park continues at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon Connecticut through August 12. For information and tickets call the box office at 860-364-7469, ext. 201 or go on line at sharonplayhouse.org.