Saturday, January 13, 2007

opening-night review of *Barefoot in the Park*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through Feb. 3

Because of space limitations in *The Inlander,* the final print version of this review will not appear on Jan. 18 but will be delayed until the Jan. 25 issue. Also, technical issues having to do with uploading photos from to are delaying the appearance here of production photos from *Barefoot in the Park.* (We’ve got ‘em, and they look good, but it’s a mission that needs undertaking by the Geek Squad.)

Despite its best features — a spirited performance by Danae M. Lowman as the freewheeling newlywed wife, the transformation of David Baker and Peter Hardie’s set by JoAnne Emery’s ‘60s furniture and props, and the relatively small number of Neil Simon jokes that still connect — the Civic’s production of *Barefoot in the Park* presents a comedy that’s showing its age and has lost much of its capacity for surprise or delight.
Unmarried middle-aged suburban women tossing their mink coats aside and getting sloppy drunk while nibbling on exotic food — such things don’t register very high on today’s Outrageous Behavior Index. Too often, director Yvonne A.K. Johnson lets the pace drag; at two hours and a quarter (including intermission), the Bratters make us overstay our welcome in their living room.
*Barefoot* is the granddaddy of a lot of TV sit coms, and Simon’s Sid Caesar apprenticeship certainly taught him the tricks of his comedic trade. Undercutting sentiment with jokes, for example: When it comes to the young lovers’ reconciliation at the end (I’m giving anything away here?), the straight-laced attorney hubbie confesses to the unconventional but anxious wifey that he loves her and that “Even when I didn’t like you, I loved you.” Or when the wife, wanting to get her man back after a marital spat, lists all the things she’d like to do to keep their relationship strong — an affecting vision of what marriage ideally should be, delivered to an empty stage by a woman stuck inside one very small offstage bathroom.
Simon also demonstrates that he knows how to write jokes that hit their punch lines inside our imaginations — like the set-up about all the plumbing fixtures being backwards, so “remember to flush up,” or the set-up about a bedroom so cramped that the newlyweds have to sleep in unison, and (much later),”tonight we sleep left to right.”
But sit coms have passed Simon by — any number of them today know how to find the compassion inside a buffoon or the heartless underbelly of a sweet young thing. Simon pointed the way toward greater humanity in comedy while himself hailing from the Vaudeville Gags School of Yuks.
And even he miscalculates sometimes: Occasionally a joke is over-explained. A late-middle-age guy gets extremely winded from climbing all those stairs up to the central couple’s walk-up apartment. “He’s probably 25,” comments another, and that’s where the laugh came on opening night, because of the audience’s instant visualization: It takes so long to climb these stairs, a man could age 40 years before he gets to the top. OK, got it. But Simon — insistent, and not for the only time, on nailing down his gag — has the straight man deliver an explanation of a bit we had already visualized and chuckled over. Drained the air right out of the joke.
Even worse, during the inevitable newlyweds’ spat late in the show, Simon writes labeling speeches to indicate what we’re supposed to know. “I think you’re serious,” says hubbie to wife as the argument escalates — but the fatal flaw is that at that moment, we see that she’s not. She’s not serious. And she’s not serious because Simon isn’t serious. His characters have only been married for six days, and already they’re having their first blow-up, and all the playwright has written for them is playacting divorce-talk. It’s not actual divorce-talk — it’s the kind of jokey banter shared by married couples who are going through the motions.
And the result is that the play’s central question isn’t “Will the newlyweds split up?” because of course they won’t, and it isn’t “Will the older generation pair off?” because a double-your-pleasure romantic comedy is double the fun, so of course they will. Simon wants to go deeper and probe the nature of marriage, and what it really takes to keep a relationship going, but he can’t get there because his toolkit of gags and one-liners doesn’t allow for it.
And don’t even get feminists started on a play in which the mother informs her newlywed daughter that a husband needs to be made to feel important, and that it’s the wife’s duty to make him feel that way. (Forget about the woman herself feeling important — she’ll be much too busy standing behind, er, by her man.)
Claiming that *Barefoot* is still worth producing after the sit com has graduated from *The Mary Tyler Moore Show* to *MASH* to *Seinfeld* is like claiming to improve today’s transmissions by studying the innards of an Edsel.

But the Civic’s production isn’t entirely unsuccessful. As the free-spirit housewife, Corie, Lowman is perky, healthy about sex but yearning to make it even more, vivacious and full of energy. She pulls off a reasonably good drunk scene and lets her voice go all squeaky when she caroms off into wronged-wife territory. Her righteous anger (“Don’t you tell me when to cry”) was especially effective and funny.
As straight-arrow lawyer Paul Bratter, Paul Villabrille looks the buttoned-down part in the suits and overcoats of costumers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless. But Villabrille neglects to cement our impressions of him — inside the apartment, he seems to match wit-play with his quirky and unselfconscious wife, with the result that he doesn’t seem so buttoned-down after all. But Villabrille must’ve convinced us somehow of his character’s conventionality, because his finest moments arrive when husband Paul suddenly, explosively bursts into flashy behavior (“Now I’m the doer and you’re the watcher,” he taunts her at one point, or when he chases Corie around the living room during a tickling game).
Because of various plot points — Paul’s never seen this shabby new apartment, Corie needs to demonstrate her unquenchable optimism in the face of ugly wallpaper and poor bathroom fixtures, and a couple of scenes end with action on both sides of a prominent (and cracked) skylight — the set and props in this show have to work wonders. Emery has found the beanbag chair and sunburst clock and psychedelic posters and ultra-groovy Space Age furniture to evoke just the kind of trendy-then, ridiculous-looking now clutter that would pass for fashionable in Corie’s Swingin’ Sixties mind.
In the supporting roles, Jean Hardie totters onstage in a mink coat, exhausted from stair-climbing and heading full speed ahead for a collapse onto that bean bag over there. She deepens her voice hilariously for some dry witticisms about marriage, and she even takes on a girlish quality when being flirted with. Robert Wamsley, meanwhile, can bring on the eccentric/oddball mannerisms, but he seems miscast as a character described as having Douglas Fairbanks-style athleticism.
Which brings on the question of whether to update Simon (or at least to delete the stuff that makes him sound like a clueless old biddy). “Stoned” doesn’t mean “really drunk” anymore, and there was a joke with a punch line alluding to a 1956 Italian ocean liner disaster that not one in 10 playgoers got (judging from the smattering of laughs on opening night). So why are we treating Simon’s script as if it were Holy Writ? The play is 44 years old, for laughing out loud; give it a new coat of paint.
Brian Lambert brings warmth and humor to what could, in other hands, revert to just another dumb-palooka repairman role. Peter Hardie (who, along with David Baker, is credited in the program as being the show’s scene and lighting designer) wordlessly overplays another repairman, but he’s still amusing in the role — and apparently it was Simon’s intention to hit us over the head (and over and over) with the climbing-six-flights-of-stairs joke. Repeatedly. Several times.
It’s not Hardie’s fault if it wasn’t funny. It’s Simon’s, and it’s the responsibility of those who keep disinterring old warhorses like *Barefoot* when other, newer, fresher comedies are available.


At January 13, 2007 10:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should we then not do Shakespeare anymore because people no longer stab each other to gain the throne? OK, so you don't like Neil Simon. We get it. But you can't write off plays because they don't reflect today's sensibilities.

At January 14, 2007 12:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't compare Shakespeare with Simon. Shakespeare has stood the test of time whereas Simon has not.

At January 14, 2007 2:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow compairing Shakespeare to Neil Simon ... Now there's a stretch!

At January 16, 2007 3:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought it was wonderful.

At January 19, 2007 11:43 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never once tried to compare this show with a comedy I might watch on some primetime sitcom of today, but rather as a period peace reflecting the emotions and humour of a bygone time.It is in many ways the quiet before the storm of a very tumuluous period in our history.You can find many hints of this in the stock humour which still rang for me as sidesplittingly funny.The superior craft of the director,cast,crew,costume and scenic designer transported me there and for this reason I had the pleasure of watching a wonderful evening of theatre.Theatre educates and is constantly reminding us where we come from.I suppose Simon could up-date and revamp the humour but for the reasons I have already stated I think that would be a shame.I like the paint just the way it is.


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