BWW Review: LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS at Little Theatre Of Mechanicsburg
The works of Neil Simon should come with a warning label: be prepared for a thorough, generous douse of comedy. And with a title such as LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, it should be no surprise that the latest production at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg is nothing less than a humorous romp through the messier side of extramarital affairs. It takes a look at men and women brought together under less-than- normal circumstances with less-than-moral intentions, and shows that the art of seduction isn't always smooth sailing. Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg makes their return after a brief absence with a show that, while at times boasting a certain self-reflective quality, brings an equal amount of laughter.
LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS first premiered on Broadway on December 28th, 1969 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. It ran until September 4th, 1971 after 706 performances, and originally starred James Coco, Linda Lavin, Doris Roberts, and Marcia Rodd. The show was nominated for 4 Tony Awards in 1970, including Best Direction of a Play as well as Best Play itself. LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS was later adapted into a film in 1972, and also enjoyed a surprisingly popular run in China in the early 2000's. The play follows the exploits of Barney Cashman, the middle-aged owner of a seafood restaurant who has decided that his search for beauty and meaning in his otherwise dull life can only be solved with string of passionate one-night stands. However, as Barney soon discovers, the process of having an affair is significantly more complicated than simply the idea.
The disillusioned Barney Cashman is portrayed at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg by Barrett Rhoades, who right from the start showcases the equal amounts of excitement and nerves that possess Barney as he prepares to invite in the object of his extramarital affections. He is flustered and anxious, shown clearly by his expert physicality and line delivery, complete with a subtle and believable New York accent that suits the show's location. Barney is man who clearly cares about his perception and reputation, and despite showing interest in the affair, is adamant that it be kept an absolute secret. He is wary of the judgement of others and very obviously takes himself--and life in general--much too seriously. We as an audience wonder, with a bit a humor, how this uptight and nervous man came to the decision to have an affair in the first place. However, his moments of enthusiasm always shine through his nervous exterior, and Rhoades highlights these excitable tendencies of his character very well.
Rhoades also does an excellent job in continuously reminding the audience, particularly in the first act of the show, that Barney is a new initiate to the world of seduction and scandal. His character is talkative, clearly a result of nerves, and he employs a wonderfully awkward physicality as he speaks to his first mistress. In fact, there are moments where Barney almost seems to be delaying the affair, pushing it off so far that his initial intentions are no longer in sight. He wants to get to know the women he is about to sleep with, has built up a grand fantasy in his mind of a night that is perfect and "beautiful." His own expectations of the meeting make him earnest and sincere, as much as a man cheating on his wife could possibly be. Rhoades' delivery of later monologues and rants, of which he has several, are filled with emotion, and clearly display the amount of dedication that Rhoades has put into inhabiting his character. However, there are times towards the beginning of the show where he could afford to push the envelope in terms of emotion.
As the show goes on, and Barney's attempts grow only stranger, we see his character begin to change and evolve. He grows more confident in his actions towards the women he brings to his secret meeting place (his mother's apartment), and seems to become increasingly more determined to go throw in his perception of a daring escapade. Though often humiliated and beguiled by the women he meets, he is persistent, a trait that we as an audience commend him for though not completely agreeing with his intentions. Barney is flawed, and misguided, but we care for and are amused by him, and this in itself is the mark of a successful portrayal.
However, as we see his attempts at adultery fly further and further out of his control, Barney's frustration begins to mount, and we see Rhoades at his best. His sincerity, at first passionate and dreamlike, now turns angry as he considers his failures. He becomes increasingly desperate, and this desperation comes across as slightly comedic, especially in Rhoades' use of timing. That being said, there are moments towards the end of the show in which Barney truly lets himself go, and these are the moments where Rhoades truly comes into his own. His moments of true, unabashed anger are almost frightening, a far cry from the uptight, anxious Rhoades we met in the beginning of the show, and this display is impressive. His character development is truly part of the driving force behind LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, but it would not be complete without the women Barney attempts to love.
The first of the red hot lovers is Elaine, a frequent customer at Barney's seafood restaurant who inspires him to make good on his desire to cheat on his wife in search of personal fulfillment. Played by Laurie D. Rowley, Elaine is the opposite of Barney in nearly every way: she is confident, she is self-assured, and she is never afraid to speak her mind with a frankness not seen in many female characters in theatre. She has no qualms with it comes to unfaithfulness, and is infinitely more experienced than Barney in such matters. Rowley's Elaine is a shameless flirt when the mood strikes her, and it often does, but her demeanor towards Barney and his sad attempts at seduction mark her as a woman who is far from easily impressed. She is incredibly and refreshingly straightforward, comfortable in her own skin and more than willing to make herself at home wherever she may be. At her core, Rowley's Elaine is blunt and honest, but has a few illusive qualities as well that make her all the more interesting. However, for the most part, Elaine expresses a desire to simply let herself go in the act of making love; she wants to get down to business, as it were, and is very obviously annoyed by Barney's chatter and distraction. And, as Barney points out, Elaine flips between moods very rapidly; she is annoyed one moment and flirtatious the next, and Rowley handles these changes quite well.
Rowley's Elaine practically drips with sarcasm, and delivers some of the most comedic one-liners in the show with ease. Her acting style compliments Rhoades' in it's realism, and they work together well despite their characters's drastically differing personalities. Barney is entirely invested in the affair, while Elaine remains calloused, unfeeling, and unattached. He is expecting a beautiful, passionate evening, while she is focused only on the physical act. Their differences make them stronger together, creating humorous and enjoyable awkward moments between that make the audience curious as to how these two unlikely lovers possibly ended up in their current situation. Their conversation twists and turns in a circular motion that keeps us interested as tension between them mounts; this is crucial when considering the dialogue-heavy nature of the show. Elaine, especially when portrayed by Rowley, is a woman of her own kind, and Barney is thoroughly put through the ringer by the time she saunters out of the room.
Despite this first attempt not quite ending the way he would have hoped, Barney then continues in his search for pleasure with Bobbi, a beautiful woman he had met in the park. Bobbi is played at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg by Megan Giles, and from the very start is every bit as peppy and enthusiastic as Elaine had not been. While her line delivery is occasionally a bit stiff and could use a bit more inflection, Giles' Bobbi is friendly and open, remaining just as sincere as Rhoades' Barney. She is inquisitive and bold, never afraid to ask a question or reveal a detail about her life. However, as Barney soon discovers, these details and stories grow increasingly dramatic and equally far-fetched. Bobbi is intriguing in the sense that the audience finds themselves wondering just how much we can believe what she is saying.
Giles portrays a character that is incredibly self-absorbed, an expert at directing any topic of conversation back to herself, but also gives the impression that she doesn't realize just how vain she really is. She radiates a sense of obliviousness that only increases as she spins her various yarns, as though she talks not for the sake of truth, but merely to hear the sound of her own voice. This trait may have stemmed from her occupation as an actress and performer, a modern career for a modern woman as Bobbi. Giles is often amusingly reminiscent of a conspiracy theorist, or a friend that lives for solely for drama and exaggeration. She also displays a versatile range, as Bobbi fluctuates somewhat rapidly between states of excitement and intensity before using marijuana to mellow herself out. Giles handles each of these changes in mood very well, and these serve to keep the scene flowing smoothly. Much like Elaine, Bobbi flusters and utterly confounds Cashman, but does so with her undying vivacity for life and insatiable taste for unordinary. However, she is not the last woman to get the best of Barney.
In what can perhaps be described as a last-ditch effort, Barney's final attempt at a once-in-a-lifetime-fling finds himself in his mother's apartment with his neighbor Jeanette, played by Randi Johnson. This interaction is different from each of Barney's previous escapades, as Barney and Jeanette have known each other for over a decade. She is not a woman that Barney managed to seduce in a park or made eyes at in a restaurant; she is his friend, and this adds a different element to the situation that is unlike the two previous acts. While Barney has grown even more confident and determined to finally obtain his long-sought pleasure, Jeanette enters the room timid and distraught, and does not even make eye contact with her neighbor before shutting herself in the bathroom in tears. However, as the scene progresses, Jeanette is able to come to terms with where she is and what she is about to do, and it is then that Johnson gets to shine. Her Jeanette is very clearly a kind and honest soul, but Johnson soon expertly unravels deeper levels to her character that make her a much different woman than the audience is expecting.
This is a woman who is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, and Johnson portrays this weariness extremely well, especially in her facial expressions and tired physicality. However, despite her self-described depression, her sadness is somehow carried with a touch of humor, much to Johnson's credit. She often comes across as a nagging mother, or a gossiping neighbor rather than a woman engaging in an affair. Jeanette specializes in self-pity and circular conversations, providing equal frustration for Barney and entertainment for the audience as the two of them go round and round in argument. She is toying with him as she speaks of a pointless existence and the extinction of decent human beings, and Barney's mounting annoyance is a source of comedy from an audience perspectivE. Johnson's Jeanette is incredibly cynical and displays this lost faith in humanity quite well; her line delivery is impeccable and she often seems the most comfortable onstage, as shown by her physicality. She thrives on comedic timing more than anyone else in the show, and brings humor to an otherwise insufferably depressing character. However, at her core, Jeanette is sincere, much like the rest of the show's characters, and simply wants to find a part of life to hold onto in the eye of her own personal storm. Johnson is a delight onstage, even in her character's darker moments, and fits right in with Barney's band of misfit mistresses.
LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS is a show that speaks of the unspeakable; it takes a peek behind closed doors and shows us what is really going on inside. While only consisting of three scenes, each is well-paced and intriguing, keeping the audience entertained for the full duration of each of Barney's trists. The show could easily find itself growing tired, especially with it's emphasis on dialogue, but the actors of Little Theatre Mechanicsburg have succeeded in keeping each moment interesting and unique. This show not only takes a humorous approach to a subject that most would rather keep taboo, but also reflects on humans and society in a way that is different than what is expected. Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg draws on the human elements of this show to make it relatable to anyone in the audience, whether or not they are a red hot lover themselves.
Presented by Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg through September 24th. Next is THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Visit www.ltmpa.com.