BWW Review: Laughing Along with the LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS at Ridgefield Theater Barn
[photo by Alicia Dempster]
Last of the Red Hot Lovers, at Ridgefield Theater Barn through Sept. 28 (ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org), is typical of playwright Neil Simon's patented style of rapid-fire repartee riddled with observations both wry and corny.
He made his bones as a gag writer in the early days of TV sketch comedy, and that tricky technique, buffed and polished by a master of the form, served him well for the rest of his storied career.
In Lovers, Barney Cashman is a middle-aged, married, New York City restaurant owner who needs to prove to himself that his libido still has what it takes. Barney's self-prescribed therapy is to borrow his working mother's apartment during the late afternoon -- before she returns home -- so he can play the playboy. It immediately is apparent as soon as Barney appears, a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, that this is a role for which he is laughably unsuited.
GETTING TO FIRST BASE
That's the central joke of the piece: in separate encounters with three very different (and very funny) women, over the course of the play's three acts, Barney smoothes out some minor rough edges in his unschooled "moves," but repeatedly is foiled in his comical attempts to reach first base.
As Barney, debonair Duane Lanham works hard to play against type, and has some nice flourishes of physical comedy. He also proves adept at conveying a kind of puppy dog lovability and vulnerability that elicits the empathy of the audience, which experiences the triptych of eccentric women through his perplexed eyes.
The overall strength of the production, as it would be in any solid staging of this show, are the three female actors.
As tough-talking, wise-cracking Elaine Navazio, Paulette Layton kickstarts the first of the three acts with total command of the stage. She struts back and forth as Barney cowers in anticipation of what aggressive move or remark she's about to hurl his way. Ms. Layton's energy sets the pace for the rest of the show.
Elaine is a hard act to follow, but, in Act II, we meet another of Barney's memorable "dates," in the person of whirling dervish Bobbi Michelle. Kate Patton does a dizzying turn as a chatterbox flower child, of sorts, not to mention an aspiring actress. She turns on Barney by inviting a smokin' Mary Jane to the two-person party. In other words, they both get high. It's purely medicinal--of course.
Finally, for Act III, the third guest l'affaires Barney who comes through his mother's door is Jeanette Fisher, a painfully shy, unhappy tall drink of water, beautifully rendered by Linda Seay.
Jeanette, you see, is not like domineering Elaine or flaky Bobbi, each a stranger Barney had picked up. Mousy, reedy-voiced Jeanette is the wife of Barney's best friend. She's low-hanging fruit for his desperate hope that the third time's the charm. Alas, it is anything but. Jeanette says she suffers from melancholia and her "total and complete despair" comes gushing out like a geyser, drowning Barney in her downcast view of the human race.
In the end, under cover of comedy, Neil Simon reveals his personal angst, as he turns to moralizing. Through Jeanette -- and through the hapless and good-hearted if conflicted Barney -- he's putting out an all points bulletin to summon "gentle, loving and decent" people, who, he makes clear, he thinks are in dangerously short supply.
After he's done his job making us laugh, Mr. Simon shifts gears in the third act to issue a warning for civilization to mend its misanthropic ways.
He was observing American life in the mid-20th Century.
Do you think we're behaving any better a half-century later?
Ha! Don't make me laugh.