Theater review: Neil Simon keeps making us laugh in ‘Barefoot in the Park’ at the 2nd Space Theatre
There is still plenty of time to catch the long run of “Barefoot in the Park,” the Good Company Players production playing through Oct. 3 at the 2nd Space Theatre. I can understand why some folks are taking a pass on this Neil Simon classic. They might think a 1963 comedy is so far removed from today’s cultural zeitgeist that it might as well be from Roman times. How could Simon’s snappy-but-clean one-liners and ‘60s plot twists be anything but mildly archaic?
Don’t fall for the subtle ageism. In the hands of Simon scholar and director Dan Pessano, who wrote his master’s thesis on the playwright, it’s fascinating to count the ways that this material still seems fresh and engaging. Call it Simon 2.0.
Circumstances precluded me from writing a review earlier in the run. I only hope that more people can see the show before it’s gone.
Related story: For Emily Kearns and Joseph Ham, going ‘Barefoot’ at the 2nd Space is a way to connect with an earlier generation
In “Barefoot,” Paul Bratter (Joseph Ham) and Corie Bratter (Emily Kearn) are newlyweds who don’t really know each other all that well. That in itself might seem mystifying today — that people got married but could start out as mere acquaintances — but the differences in their personalities click with the age-old “opposites attract” romantic trope. The couple has moved into an outrageously cheap (by today’s standards) Manhattan apartment. When we first meet them, life is definitely roughing it: no furniture yet delivered; unreliable heat; a Mount Everest-like climb from street level to their fifth-floor walkup.
Yet this is also an upscale tale: Paul is a young lawyer presumably on a path to riches, while Corie’s trajectory in life seems preordained, with kids, volunteering and housework (and likely domestic help) in the decades to come. Even with such financial security, however, there is slightly strained, strangled quality to Corie’s expected role in life. As an audience from the future, we can look ahead at the feminist movement and anticipate that Corie will be interacting with the world much differently in 10 or 20 years or so.
Ham and Kearn handle the cutesy, idyllic newlywed vibe well in the first act. One of Ham’s strengths is how he can play as clean-cut as a freshly peeled carrot; his character’s conservative streak is apparent. There is also ambition and a certain undercurrent of ruthlessness to his Paul; he’s going to do what it takes to succeed. But he lacks a sort of spontaneous recklessness that Corie craves; he won’t even take off his shoes after it snows and run in Central Park!
Kearn, too, captures the perky optimism and free-thinking spirit of Corie in those opening scenes. But Simon throws us a curve later in the play, introducing a conflict between the couple that is surprisingly stringent. This is where I think the two actors really shine: The battle gets fought on territory that could still be considered comic, but there are some big guns unleashed in their back-and-forth. (For a moment, I wondered if this Corie might just up and divorce Paul.)
While the production remains firmly in the early ‘60s thanks to David Pierce’s set, Brandi Martin’s wonderfully immersive lighting design and Damen Pardo’s groovy costumes, I think that Pessano’s direction updates the play’s notable secondary characters in important ways. Victor Velasco (played by Edgar Olivera), the wacky neighbor, is set up by Simon as the eccentric-foreigner character, the one who shows these staid white people how to have a little more fun in life. Victor is daring in his exploits and flamboyant in his excesses; he encourages those around him to taste new foods, drink to excess and expand experiences. But in Pessano’s hands, there are no Latin-lover cliches or immigrant hijinks, no sense of the “other” for cheap laughs. What could have been an overly broad caricature becomes a smoothly comic character.
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The other updated character in this equation is Corie’s mother, Mrs. Banks, played by Ethel Birrell. (She had to leave the show temporarily midway through the run because of personal tragedy, but she has returned to the role, and I and many others are certainly thinking about and rooting for her.) Birrell knows her way around larger-than-life comic roles. In this case, however, Pessano coaxes a more restrained, clamped-down take on her character from Birrell than might be expected. Birrell offers some fine moments of physical comedy — the expression on her face after she’s climbed those five flights of stairs is one — but aside from a few small seething moments, she is far less an obnoxious mother-slash-mother-in-law and far more a genuinely caring individual who still feels slightly befuddled in her own widowhood. Both Victor and Mrs. Banks move far beyond the world of sitcom types and become fascinating characters in their own rights.
Finally, while there is definitely a feel of nostalgia with “Barefoot,” I wonder if we can all learn from its tantalizing combinations of frivolity and bitterness, of economic advantage and scraping by, of women cemented into preordained positions and women having the gumption to wiggle out before the concrete dries.
Yes, the world has changed. But Central Park is still here, and it still doesn’t make much sense to go barefoot in it during the winter. Sometimes, however, you do what you have to do to prove you’re alive. As a line of wisdom from one our comic forefathers, that kind of humanity never goes out of style.