Barefoot in the Parkby Neil Simon. Directed by Jenn Thompson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Six days do not a week make!"
Tony Roach and Amelia White; photo: provided
It wasn’t, and isn’t, easy being newlyweds taking up residence in a new apartment. That’s the premise on which Neil Simon’s 1963 Broadway hit comedy was based. With a stellar cast including Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley as the young couple, Mildred Natwick as her mother, Kurt Kasznar as their neighbor and Herbert Edelman as the telephone repairman it had a first rate company and during the 1530 performances the replacements were often bigger stars than the originals. It’s current production at the Dorset Playhouse in Dorset, Vermont has fewer big names but the personalities are a perfect match for the play and that provides strong and exciting sense of presence to this summertime comedy set in the winter.
Corie Bratter has found an apartment that she feels cannot be beaten: a six-story walkup (if you count the 13 step stoop - everyone but Corie does), with a broken skylight, no heat, a battered refrigerator, a stove that catches on fire, a bathroom with limited access and no bath and a bedroom that’s too small for a bed. Her husband of six days who has just spent his honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel, Paul, isn’t happy with this new place. Thus begins the first argument of the marriage. Not even the telephone repair man can abide the joint on his first visit. Still, in his second scene, he manages to make some pertinent points, enough to get an exit ovation from the audience at the performance I attended and as played by Tom Ferguson it was a well-deserved hand.
As this ‘s’wonderful couple come to grips with the reality of their new arrangements the marriage and the affections of both are tested and found wanting. . .more. That’s the plot and that’s all I’ll say about it. Except to tell you that this fifty year old play has not really dated much. A few period props, a few period costumes and an occasional reference are all that take this plot out of today’s world and securely dump it back into its own place and period. The comedy is still sharp and the story somewhat more universal than I could have hoped for back in 1963. This is a play that speaks to us now, just as it did then and that is a wonderful discovery to have made.
Especially as staged and directed by Jenn Thompson, a statement I could make over and over. It is a phrase that could be added to every comment above on this production and on every comment below as well: "especially as staged and directed by Jenn Thompson." This young director has displayed over and over a fresh comic eye when it comes to remembered scripts. She has been able to reproduce, with a stunning and remarkable sense of contemporary nuance and timing, classic moments that emerge as brand new and unseen. She has a genuine connection with this material. The spontaneity within the stage style that she gives her actors, that sense of "happening" over "acting" that makes the difference, but good comedy is definitely her forte. Who knows where such talent springs from; perhaps it is her upbringing in a family that lived and breathed theater.
Her father, Evan Thompson - once a New York theater leading man - has brought up the talent that revivifies these plays. Thompson appears in "Barefoot. . ." this time around playing the delivery man, a one-scene role that is funny and made more so through his performance. His thin wheeze, his hands-cupped reality, his weak, loose limbs and his unfocused eyes are hilarious and the power of the laughter he incites in an audience is the sort of thing that comes to fine actors through the intervention of their best directors.
Lesley Shires breathes life into Corie Bratter, new wife and a "mother-of-invention" type of gal. She seeks out new experiences through new friendships constantly. Her concept of life is based on hopeful supposition and Shires plays into that brilliantly. She is almost over-the-top, but she never gets more than an ankle over that edge before falling back onto the risqué she knows over the risqué she could inspire.\
Her husband is played by Tony Roach who manages to make Paul into as dull a human being as ever lived. What compelled her to marry this lawyer, beside his intense good looks, is beyond me. He is that dull - and even after his turning point is reached, his real one and not his fake one, he manages at long last to be only just likeable enough to let us understand that there is enough in him to inspire love from Corie. This role is written in a negative fashion and the result in Roach’s performance is the darker side of Paul.
Corie’s mother is delicately played by Amelia White who gets every conceivable laugh and when she has finished with every other facial expression imaginable she plucks a new one out of her repertoire of amazing looks and gets one more laugh at the curtain calls. If no one else was good at interpreting this play’s many assets the ticket price would be justified by White’s work alone.
Geoffrey Wade takes on the amusing miscreant, Victor Velasco. What emerges is a swell impression of a European con man whose deepest secret is his own vulnerability. Wade plays so many sides of this man that our sympathy is with him as is our empathy. It is a brilliant concept realized with finesse and talent.
Still it is the work of the director that makes these deep impressions so unforgettable. Thompson has taken risks with her work here, directing each of these actors beyond the scope of the writing. Once again a classic comedy takes on a truly authoritative reality and becomes better than the original.
Kevin Judge’s fine set is beautifully lit by Michael Gianniti. Stephen Kunken sets us into a time period that is almost foreign but completely attainable and Teresa Snider-Stein’s costumes suggest that period without removing us from the play’s contemporary reality.
I traveled 155 miles (round-trip) to see this play and that’s my time-machine-to-a-worthwhile-place experience. If you can take your own voyage to Dorset, Vermont I suspect you will have such a good time that the mileage will not matter a bit.
Evan Thompson; photo provided
Tony Roach and Lesley Shires; photo provided
Barefoot in the Park plays at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Chesney Road, Dorset, Vermont through August 10. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line to www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.