Barefoot In The Park: Make Them Hear You
There's an old story about how Mary Martin got her first job on Broadway, a starmaking role in the musical, Leave It To Me. After passing Cole Porter's singing audition, she was asked to read a scene with the show's leading man, William Gaxton, for director and co-bookwriter, Sam Spewack. As they stood on stage at the Imperial Theatre, moments before beginning, Gaxton advised the nervous young Texan, "Doesn't matter how you say 'em, just say 'em loud. Straight up to the balcony." With that, Martin looked up and yelled her first line to the back of the house. Spewack stopped the audition immediately and hired her on the spot, ordering her never to change that reading.
Watching the new revival of Barefoot In The Park, I wondered if Amanda Peet's audition for director Scott Elliot went pretty much the same way.
This season has not been kind to the early works of Neil Simon, the plays that established him as a master of wisecracking Manhattan comedy. As I wrote in my review of The Odd Couple, I don't like to lay most of the blame for a production's inadequacy on one performance, but when your central character, the one who's on stage for nearly the entire evening and is the emotional anchor of the story, is played by an actress who yells most of her lines to the back of the house without any regard for comic timing or vocal variety… well, there's a good chance many of the jokes just aren't going to land.
Simon's background before coming to Broadway was in television comedy, most notably as a member of the illustrious writing staff collected by Sid Caesar. His early work is built on a solid 3-joke-a-page structure. But there's also a good deal of heart pitter-pattering underneath. Barefoot In The Park, premiering in 1963, is about the awkward time when two people in love try and work through the compromises that come with living together. Young, button-down lawyer-to-be Paul Bratter (Patrick Wilson) and his free-spirited wife, Corie (the very loud Amanda Peet), have just completed a 6-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel and are now set to begin their lives together in a cramped, five floor walk-up, fixer-upper. Although their pre-married life is never discussed in detail, it's a safe assumption that they have never lived under the same roof. And from the way Corie describes their honeymoon, it's quite possible they've never slept together before the wedding night.
The main conflict Simon sets up is Paul's determination to spend long hours working in order to become a successful breadwinner clashing with Corie's need for lots of quality time together. It's a case where both sides are acting out of love and want what's best for the two of them, so the audience can, in theory, like both of them and laugh along while they pull for a mutual understanding. But Peet's incomprehensible performance (incomprehensibly allowed by Elliot), lacking in character, motivation and most basic acting skills, destroys any chance to build empathy for the young couple. Wilson does an admirable job trying to play off of so little, but his Paul is too genial to really get the laughs required. Aside from the volume, Elliot's couple is played for realism, but rarely the type of realism that comes out funny. It's only due to the strength of Simon's play that there is any consistent laughter at all.
Tony Roberts knows a bit about smart, urban comedy and scores nicely as the eccentric ladies man living upstairs. Jill Clayburgh is an odd choice to play Paul's conservative, decidedly unglamorous mother, with her appearance and manner sometimes in direct conflict with what's in the script. Looking stunning in a green dress by costume designer Isaac Mizrahi, she looks like the type who, a few years later, would be on the Radical Chic guest list at one of Leonard Bernstein's Black Panthers fundraisers, taking much of the spark out of the subplot between her and Roberts.
Adam Sietz has plenty of blue-collar comic charm in the small role of the telephone repairman and Sullivan Walker, in a one-joke walk-on, plays that one joke perfectly.
There was steady, moderate laughter the evening I attended, and though Elliot supplies the cast with a few bits that work well, the comic fireworks never explode. The gunpowder is there, but the matches are wet.