Neil Simon writes terrific comedy. Tonight, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, directed by Theater J’s Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, performed by Walnut Street Theatre at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, relied on two wonderfully talented comedians to remind us how good Simon’s plays can be. The play, which first opened on Broadway in 1969, was made into a film in 1972.
There are four characters in the play; Barney Cashman, played by Fran Prisco, and the three women who he brings to his mother’s empty apartment over the course of a year, hoping to enjoy the pleasures of the sexual revolution. The women are all played by Karen Peakes, with delightful distinction between them. Barney’s attempts to succeed with the three drives the play.
In the first of the three scenes, Barney arrives at the apartment of his mother, who is out, doing her weekly volunteer work at the hospital. He is awkward, uptight, and clearly conflicted about the adulterous fling he has planned with Elaine Navazio, a recent repeat customer from his seafood restaurant. As Navazio, Karen Peakes is self-aware, experienced, and a tad predatory. Of the four characters in the show, she is the most comfortable with herself, most willing to hear what Barney has to say, and yet constantly surprises him and the audience.
Besides the very funny jokes, witty repartee, and constantly shifting tensions that Neil Simon provides, I was most absorbed in the character development by the two actors. Prisco grows and changes with each encounter, and yet we glimpse repeated aspects of his character that reside deeply in him. Peakes is wonderfully adept at building characters, and Navazio, is very different from Bobbi Michele or Jeanette Fisher, the other women she plays. Bobbi is a hopeful young actress who is flighty and delusional, and Jeanette is cold, self-involved, and deeply depressed.
I loved the costume design by Mark Mariani, which thoughtfully represented the late 1960’s in New York. Peakes’ changes of costumes and wigs supported the various women she played to help distinguish their vast differences. Mariani’s costumes give him an air of the perpetually “nice” guy, trying, but not achieving a sophisticated look for his dates.
The set designed by John Hoey for this traveling production, works for the play, representing a small NY city apartment of an elderly lady. Despite added wings offering a false proscenium, it does feel small for the stage at Mason’s Center for the Arts. The production uses a screen hanging high above the stage with supertitles, providing the lines from the show. While I know this is sometimes used in operas and other productions performed in other languages than English, I found it very distracting and unnecessary. I expect members of the audience who were hard of hearing or deaf appreciated it more than I. Hoey was also responsible for lighting design, which had some difficulties coordinating with the space. Light cues at the beginning and end of scenes involved house lights shifting on and off, which seemed inappropriate.
The audience enjoyed the humor and strong talents of the two actors and Walnut Street provides a great evening’s entertainment. Don’t miss future productions when they come to town.
Running Time is two hours and 20 minutes including an intermission.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers performed by the Walnut Street Players, played at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University -4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA, for one night only on February 12, 2017. To see more events at George Mason University Center for the Arts, go to their calendar of events. For more information about Walnut Street Players, visit their website.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 reviewed by Celeste Mann.