Review: ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3

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There is one man and three different women. He’s in the midst of a midlife crisis, trying to connect with somebody not his wife, and find something “beautiful” in an affair. But it’s not that easy. It’s the 1960s, and even though that decade marked the beginning of the sexual revolution, a change in mindset and behavior did not happen overnight – and for some it never did.

Fran Prisco and Karen Peakes in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers is nearly 50 years old, but it is still relevant and entertaining today. The Walnut Street Theatre’s production, directed by Adam Immerwahr, is thoroughly engaging and hilarious. (it’s almost two hours but it is well-paced and moves quickly). I laughed through most of it, yet there were some serious elements. There were a few times when the funny dialogue made me think about what was important in life. There was even one touching moment at which I shed a tear.

There are only two actors in the cast. Fran Prisco plays the Man, who is called Barney. Karen Peakes plays the Woman – or rather, she plays three different women. First she is Elaine, a customer who Barney picks up in his own fish restaurant. Then she is Bobbie, an aspiring actress/singer who he meets in a parking lot, and finally Jeannette, his wife’s friend, and also the wife of his friend Mel. Prisco expertly plays Barney, who seems to learn more about having an affair with each woman. He shows a range of acting ability as Barney’s personality and strategy changes and develops with each woman.

The Barney who interacts with Elaine is a novice at cheating. He is hesitant to get physical, and is traditionally dressed in a blue suit and very upstanding and formal. Plus he talks too much and they only have two hours to get it on!

Fran Prisco and Karen Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

When he is with Bobbie, he thinks he knows what he is doing and is prepared with more liquor and cigarettes, which he lacked with Elaine, and tries to be suave and aggressive. And surprises ensue!

Finally, with Jeannette, Barney is much more himself and open. He is emotionally responsive to his friend in order to help her with her problems. Again, this is not the epic love affair in the afternoon that he had planned. However, by this point he is no longer concerned about keeping the noise down and what the neighbors might hear. Nor is Barney following a romantic script in his head about what is supposed to happen, like he attempted with the first two women.

Karen Peakes outdoes herself interpreting these three women. Each characterization is nuanced and distinct from the previous one. Costume Designer Mark Mariani effectively transforms her physically for each one with wardrobe, wigs, and makeup.

Peakes employs a different accent, vocal timbre and speech pattern for each woman, making each character authentic and believable. Peakes’ Elaine is loud, blunt, and brassy with a working class New York City accent. Her Bobbie is a ditzy California blonde in a mini-skirt, and her Jeannette is a reserved, accent-less, well-spoken matronly woman of 39, attached to her pocketbook. Thirty-nine today is still considered to be pretty young, but in the 1960s anybody over 29 was OLD! Jeannette is dressed conservatively and appears emotionally beat down and jaded.

The set and lighting by John Hoey, and the sound design by John Kolbinski, are important and intrinsic elements of the production. The setting is Barney’s mother’s studio apartment. It includes a sofa bed, a coffee table, and a small table and chairs by the windows. The windows have curtains that Barney makes sure are closed when he arranges the room for his trysts.

The rotary dial phone and the cars honking outside provided realism and establish the 1960s New York time and place. Photos on the walls, lace doilies and trinkets on the tables emphasize that this is a mature woman’s home.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers has a timeless and humorous script about love and life that is brilliantly performed by Fran Prisco and Karen Peakes. Come prepared to watch Barney try to connect with three women – and to laugh your head off!

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers plays through February 5, 2017 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 — 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or (800)-982-2787, or purchase them online.

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