BWW Review: A Nimble BAREFOOT IN THE PARK at Gloucester Stage Company
Barefoot in the Park
Written by Neil Simon, Directed by Shana Gozansky; Scenic Design, Jeffrey Petersen; Lighting Design, Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Sound Design, David Remedios; Props Design, Lauren Corcuera; Stage Manager, Jenna Worden
Performances through June 30 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Gloucester Stage Company opens its 40th Anniversary Season with a nostalgic romp in the park, specifically Neil Simon's 1963 hit play, Barefoot in the Park. Pairing McCaela Donovan and Joe Short (who are married in real life) as the young newlyweds moving from their blissful six-day honeymoon into a Manhattan sixth-floor walk up is a stroke of luck for Director Shana Gozansky. Making her GSC debut, she didn't have to worry about establishing trust and comfort in the romantic aspects of the characters' relationship. Not only do Donovan (Corie) and Short (Paul) fit together hand in glove, but Paula Plum and Richard Snee, another offstage married couple, complete the cast and contribute immeasurably to the hilarity.
After making his start as a comedy writer on radio and television, Simon turned his attention to the stage, scoring his first major hit with Barefoot. He would go on to write dozens of plays and win three Tony Awards, as well as becoming a successful screenwriter. Born on the 4th of July, 1927, Simon was the quintessential American playwright, telling stories that reflected not only his own childhood experiences, but also the broader range of American stories, with a blend of humor and pathos. Barefoot in the Park follows the journey of one young couple, but quietly and simply explores what marriage is all about once it faces the cold light of day.
Although the play was written and first produced more than half a century ago, the bones of the story are sturdy. Simon's wit makes the laughs come fast and furiously, so the few lines that sound out of place in 2019 fade away in a blur. Plum (Corie's mother, Ethel) and Snee (Victor Velasco, the upstairs neighbor) are masters of comic timing and get plenty of opportunity to display their talents. In a scene where the four are "enjoying" hors d'oeuvres before preparing to go out to dinner, Velasco offers a platter of knichi (salted eel, grated olives, spices, and onion biscuits) and demonstrates the way to eat it, tossing it back and forth from one hand to the other, before "popping" it into the center of the palate. Just hearing about it makes Ethel's stomach turn, and Plum's actions and facial expressions as she attempts to partake of the delicacy are worth the price of admission.
Corie and Paul are an example of opposites attracting as she is a free spirit and he is a buttoned- down lawyer, trending toward stuffed shirt. Donovan captures the sunny, positive qualities that are part of Corie's charm, as well as the little insecurities that inform her relationships with Paul and her mother. Her performance is layered with humor and a sense of fun, and she shares great chemistry, not only with Short, but also with Plum and Snee. I love the way that Simon has written Paul, almost as a split personality. He is focused and gives the appearance of being the grownup in the relationship, yet is quickly and easily undone, turning manic in a heartbeat when anything goes awry. Short converts seamlessly from one aspect of the character to another, and also turns out to be adept at physical comedy.
Gozansky makes good use of Jeffrey Petersen's unit set, which is bare of anything other than the kitchen appliances and some cartons when the play starts. During a break between scenes, the director cleverly employs a couple of stagehands dressed in coveralls to bring in and arrange the mid-century style furniture. Costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt accurately captures the colors and fashions of the zeitgeist of the 1960s, and helps to establish the eccentricity of Velasco and cement the personalities of the other three by their manner of dress. Lighting design by Marcella Barbeau and sound design by David Remedios effectively support the production, and Lauren Corcuera has rounded up props from the period that will have audience members of a certain age thinking, "I had one of those!" As for younger theatergoers who may never have seen one, be sure to notice the Princess telephone with its dial and extra-long cord.
Simon mined his own life and his first marriage to dancer Joan Baim (who died of cancer in 1973 and to whom he was married for twenty years) for Barefoot in the Park. The couple appear in the recent tv biopic Fosse/Verdon as friends of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and Joan's death is part of the storyline. Simon was married four more times (twice to the same woman) until he died on August 26, 2018. In 1983, he became the first living playwright to have a Broadway theater named for him. He leaves an incredible body of work as his legacy, and kudos to Gloucester Stage Company for reminding us.