For Emily Kearns and Joseph Ham, going ‘Barefoot’ at the 2nd Space is a way to connect with an earlier generation
Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” has a sunny disposition and a plucky, youthful vibe that essentially says: Remember how fun it was to start your journey as an adult?
The Good Company Players production, which opens at the 2nd Space Theatre on Friday, Aug. 13, and continues a long run through Oct. 10, features a couple of appealing actors in the leading roles: Joseph Ham and Emily Kearns. I got the opportunity to sit down with them during tech week to talk about working with director Dan Pessano — a Simon aficionado — and the nostalgia of a time period (the 1960s) when the monthly rent for a little apartment in New York City could cost less than a check for a two-person dinner at Fleming’s today.
DONALD: You play newlyweds, right?
JOSEPH: Paul and Corie have just moved into their new apartment in New York. And the play follows them over those first few days of their marriage: meeting their crazy neighbors; dealing with her neurotic mother; and all of the insane high jinks that happen when their attic neighbor, the eccentric Mr. Velasco, is paired up with her mother.
EMILY: I play Corie — Corie Banks Bratter. She is really excited to start her life with Paul. They’re a young couple, but they’re not that young by ’60s standards. So I think she’s really excited to get married. And she’s excited to have a lot of fun with Paul. She’s a very fun person and she likes to have fun in her life.
JOSEPH: I play Paul Bratter. He’s a very inexperienced lawyer. He’s trying to make his way into a successful law career. And he’s very prim and proper and straight thinking. There’s even a line that Corie says, “Paul doesn’t look at life; he stares.” So he’s very stiff. But he thinks himself to be much more mature than he really is. Which you find out later in the show.
DONALD: When I saw the play for the first time it seemed like a New York, that doesn’t exist anymore.. Are either of you New York fans? Have you been there?
JOSEPH: Never been.
DONALD: How does the New York in this play compare to the New York you experienced?
EMILY: Well, certainly cheaper. Certainly less expensive.
DONALD: I’m curious — in the actual play,do they ever say how much the rent is?
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JOSEPH: Paul actually complains about the fact that it’s $125 a month.
EMILY: If only!
DONALD: Which actually probably gets a big laugh from your audience. Though it probably didn’t when the play opened. How else does this New York feel different?
EMILY: I think that there’s a little more connection between the Bratters and the people around them. New York definitely has this reputation for being so fast-paced that you maybe don’t know your neighbors, and they certainly get to know their neighbors a lot.
DONALD: So maybe a little bit more of a small-townish feel to it.
EMILY: Yeah, I think so.
DONALD: Your character does not work, Emily. Have you ever played a homemaker before?
EMILY: I have to think about that. I think so, but it’s never been a central focal point to the play. I have been in shows where it hasn’t quite been mentioned that she has a job, or if it’s a more antiquated show, of course, she wouldn’t have a job because women didn’t work back then. But never like this. Yeah. This is different.
JOSEPH: I actually have played a lawyer named Paul before.
DONALD: You did, in “A Shot in the Dark.” That’s wild. Anyway, obviously this couple is still in the honeymoon phase. Where does the humor come from? Differences between the two?
EMILY: Definitely. I think the two of them are really attracted to each other and really excited about being in love. And I think that the humor comes from finding out those little idiosyncrasies about each other that they didn’t know about before they got married.
DONALD: I always think it’s fun to watch a show at the 2nd Space because it often tends to be a generational experience.
DONALD: You’re a completely different generation than most of your audiences. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like you’re almost learning a different comic language?
JOSEPH: Yeah, I guess so. I feel like, really, the style of the comedy is just so intrinsic in the words and the dialogue and everything that it just kind of naturally happens that way. Dan has told us many times that Neil Simon has a very specific rhythm to his words, and his jokes and everything. At least for me, I don’t really need to think too much about playing to that older generation, because I think they’re just gonna get it because it’s there in the play itself.
DONALD: Anyone who’s been in Fresno theater for a while knows that Dan Pessano is a Neil Simon fanatic. He loves Neil Simon. He did his thesis on Neil Simon. He knows a lot about Neil Simon. What has it been like to be directed by him in this show?
JOSEPH: I mean, it’s been incredible to be directed by Dan, period. He’s shared a lot of anecdotes with us, sometimes just for fun, sometimes to connect into his direction for the show and kind of explain his understanding of the rhythm and the comedy and stuff like that.
EMILY: It’s really special to have Dan guide us on this, since he actually knew Neil Simon, which is amazing.
DONALD: Do you think the style of humor is old-fashioned, Emily?
EMILY: I don’t think so. I think there are certainly aspects of it that are old-fashioned, and those just time out, those become no longer funny, and we have to move on without them. The style, the timing, the wit of it, I think is a timeless comedic style.
DONALD: The comedy is a little gentler than what we’re used to today. There isn’t the caustic back-and-forth that you often find in comedies, more lighthearted. So, let’s do a character exercise. We’ve got Paul and Corie. Corie, where do you think this couple will be in 30 years? Do you think she’s gone out and gotten a job?
EMILY: I think that if all goes well, she is staying home and working on her house, and we have a more beautiful, larger apartment. And she is taking care of her grandchildren. That’s what I think.
DONALD: Sounds good. Paul, what is one thing that annoys you about your wife?
JOSEPH: Her eagerness to jump into things without thinking for even a second. And it could be said that Paul looks a little too long. He doesn’t jump often enough. But I think maybe there’s a happy medium to be found somewhere.
DONALD: Do you think Paul will be able to get ahead in his law firm?
JOSEPH: I think he’s a pretty smart guy. He got an opportunity pretty early, and it didn’t go terribly. So yeah, I think he’s a hard worker. I think even if he’s not, you know, running the law firm in 30 years, I think he’s got a pretty solid position.
DONALD: Do you think Corie would like him to be more ruthless?
EMILY: I think so. Yeah. I think that she could do with him making a few more direct, assertive decisions in life.
JOSEPH: Paul does stare quite often.
DONALD: Getting back to the generational aspect, is this a hard sell for your peer group?
EMILY: I think so if our peers weren’t in a production of it in high school. There’s definitely, a group of people that did this in school, and they’re so excited. But other than that, I think it is a little bit of a hard sell, because it’s an older show, and just doesn’t really excite the younger generation quite as much I remember when I was in high school.
DONALD: When I was in high school, it seemed like we did a Neil Simon show every year. It was a big deal. (They laugh.). Some of Neil Simon’s shows have not aged as well as others. One of those shows you were in, Joe, “Star Spangled Girl.” How was that show different from this one?
JOSEPH: I think the core of “Barefoot” is much sweeter and genuine than “Star Spangled Girl,” was based on a very uncomfortable premise. Yes, there are a few jokes in “Barefoot” that are a little dated, subject-matter wise, but I think, at its core, it’s just a sweet, silly romantic comedy about a couple of young kids who have no idea what they’re doing. “Barefoot” is a lot more genuine.
DONALD: What comic lessons do you think you are learning from the production? Is there something basic in the way he sets up the job? The timing?
EMILY: I think I’ve learned to trust the script a lot from this. His jokes are really funny. And it takes less effort on our part when we can say something that’s written in such a funny way. So I think trusting his script, and then leaning on our own timing a little bit, has definitely been a lesson.
DONALD: And can you fill us in on your supporting cast?
EMILY: Ethel Birrell plays Corie’s mother. She’s an incredible comedic actress. I adore her. It’s been so much fun to do the show with her, and she’s the perfect person to play this role. She playing the role of Ethel — her name is also Ethel in the play, which is cool — has taken a lot of subduing of her normal comedic style. And it’s still so funny. She does a great job with it.
JOSEPH: And there are two other supporting players. One is Edgar Olivera. He’s playing Victor Velasco, who’s our upstairs neighbor. He lives in the attic, and he’s very eccentric and Bohemian and the polar opposite of her mother, which makes their pairing all the funnier. And Edgar does a fantastic job. He’s very sweet, but also a little disarming, which is, I think, the perfect combo for that character. And, Benjamin Geddert plays the telephone repairman. He only gets a couple of scenes, but he really makes them stick.
DONALD: Why is it so important for people to support live theater?
EMILY: During the pandemic, even though we have connection through our technology, the idea of being together safely is something that I think a lot of people have really missed. So being able to come together over a shared experience, like the theater, is something that people have really been longing for this past year and a half. It’s really nice to come together again and have an experience that is reminiscent of a happier time.