Six days do not a week make.
These famous words of nonsense, uttered by the young wife Cory, will tell all serious theatergoers that they are in the domain of Neil Simon and his oft-performed blockbuster Barefoot in the Park. Written in 1963, Barefoot established Simon as the go-to playwright for Broadway comedy. Nowadays we critics tend to scoff at these earlier works calling them “sitcoms” or “formula plays.” A revisit brought this reviewer a few surprises.
Simon already had the deft hand with a wisecrack, but now we can notice the presence of three-dimensional characters, which give the actors complex roles to really dig into. His sense of structure is already impeccable, with a first act (of three) that demonstrates how much Cory and Paul love each other, and the second ending in one of the funniest arguments in American theater.
Simon wrote the play as a love-letter to his new wife. Cory and Paul have been married for six days, and are just moving into a new apartment. Since this is New York City, the apartment has only one room and is sadly run down. Paul, a bit of a stuffed shirt, immediately sees the problems, such as no heat and a hole in the skylight, but Cory, a spirited kook out to enjoy life to the fullest, is so delighted with her new situation that she notices nothing. But by the end of act two, Paul is on the couch alone, being rained on. There is a second love story involving Cory’s straight-as-a-board mother, a recent widow, who might find new life with Cory’s eccentric, attic dwelling neighbor. The title implies that running “barefoot in the park” when it is seventeen degrees might be the secret to a successful marriage. Couples have to bend a little bit, as in the mother’s famous line: “ If you do that you’ll have a happy and wonderful marriage – like two out of every ten couples.”
And then there’s one of the best running gags ever. The apartment is a sixth floor walk-up, so everyone enters in a different state of comic exhaustion. Anyone who has ever lived in New York can readily identify.
This production, skillfully directed by Paul Nolan, mines all the subtleties of the characters yet keeps the action moving at lighting speed. Sarah Robertson as Cory instantly wins the audience’s heart with her energy and “joie de vivre.” Since the first act is in an empty apartment with no furniture, this allows Robertson literally to dance the role, as she demonstrates Cory’s vivacity. David Polgar as Paul has a lot to work with as he tries his best to keep his suits pressed and to appear in court on time as a new young lawyer. His character development is carefully delineated as the play progresses. The famous quarrel scene is a winner. Best of all is Susan Giddings as the mother. Blessed with a beautiful theater voice, and the physicality of a true rep actress, she wrings the most out of every line and pause. Where are the roles in Shaw and Molière that she could do so well? Ted Ford is an amusing homeless eccentric, as her love interest, but is not the urbane, suave, continental roué that Simon wrote. Frank Schierloh is funny and empathetic as the telephone man.
Director Nolan has left the play securely in the 1960s. We see an actual telephone repairman, and the apartment only costs $125 a month. There is also a good deal of drinking with the audience encouraged to laugh at drunken staggering and antics. This has fallen out of favor today, but it was a mainstay of comedy since the days of Charlie Chaplin. In some ways we see that the play is ever more relevant: the culture of narcissism so prevalent today makes the play’s conflicts seem more valid and less like a sitcom.
Envision production has designed a workable but monochrome set (off-white walls with beige furniture), and costumer Tara Bowers makes some attempts to capture the period. The skylight effects, lit by Mike Cristella and Max Redman, nevertheless, are great.
The Candlelight Theatre also survives as a tribute to bygone days: Dinner Theater. Major cities used to have three or four venues that served busloads of retirement communities dry roast beef and salty potatoes. This writer is old enough to have experienced such “classics” as Gale Storm in Forty Carats, Neal Newman in Six Rooms Riv Vu, and Tom Poston in The Odd Couple.
Candlelight, however, does the tradition proud. The food is excellent (unless you are on a limited diet), the servers (usually members of the ensemble) are friendly, and the people you meet, in last night’s case at least, are experienced theatergoers who have seen a variety of area productions.
The ticket price is low and the quality is high. Welcome to the wonderful past.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions.