Dateline—Rest in peace, Neil Simon…and thanks for all the laughs.
Garland Civic Theatre’s sweet and sassy production of the 1963 classic Barefoot in the Park couldn’t be better timed—not just as a fitting tribute to the late playwright, who died in August at the age of 91, but also as a reminder of who he was and why we loved him.
Zoe Settle and Gabriel Ethridge charm our socks off as quirky, loveable newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter, starting married life in a bare-bones Manhattan walk-up. (The climb to their apartment—it’s five flights and a stoop—is the joke that just keeps coming.) She’s a free spirit; he’s a buttoned-down baby lawyer. Let the comedy games begin.
Barefoot showcases Simon’s genius for turning a small cast into a comedy banquet. There are only four other characters in Barefoot: Corey’s widowed, sensible mom from New Jersey (Dana Proulx-Willis); upstairs neighbor Velasco, an aging Euro-playboy who likes to leer (Jon Morehouse); the Telephone Repair Man (Evan Figg), a hapless, hilarious witness at both ends of the play; and a speechless, barely breathing Delivery Man from Lord & Taylor (David Tinney). There are no minor parts in a Simon play—just roles that don’t last long.
Settle’s big eyes and bouncing energy suit Corie, whose cheerful sexiness and spontaneous “sieze the day” ways sometimes startle her straight-arrow husband. (It’s only the start of The Sixties, but Corie is getting there fast.) Ethridge looks remarkably like every young lawyer racing along the sidewalks of New York: overworked and in love, his wisecracks (and his yen for Corie) might be the only things keeping him awake. They’re wild about each other, these two, but they’re very different people. Can this thing work? As free-thinking as Corie is, she’s still a girl of the pre-feminist era. She’s making the home, he’s making the living…and if Corie can “make him feel special,” says her mother, they ought to be happy—“like two out of every 10 couples.”
And that’s Simon: just as we’re about to roll our eyes and get huffy, he makes us laugh.
The older adults of the piece find themselves in changing times, too. Corie’s mother Ethel, her life a regimen of “pink pills” and careful living, is roped into her daughter’s adventures in urban living—and finds she might like letting her hair down. Velasco, still hustling for dinners, drinks and pretty girls (in no particular order), begins to see he might be ready for some comfort food and a warm hearth. Proulx-Willis and Morehouse have fun with the shock (and aww) of their characters’ transitions from one life to at least the hint of another.
One forgets, after long absence, the sheer craft of Neil Simon’s writing. The man never wastes a second of stage time; every line has snap and momentum—yet somehow, conversations and characters feel real and human. The comedy isn’t forced, it flows, and we’re carried along on a giddy stream of fun:
Telephone Repair Man: Well, Eldorado 5-8191, have a nice marriage…and may you soon have many extensions.
Paul: If anything comes up, like the furniture, or the heat, just let me know.
Corie: You’re almost nearly perfect!
Paul: That’s a rotten thing to say!
Ethel: I feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven—only we had to climb up.
Director Timothy Doyle has pulled fine work from a smart cast, who make the play’s precise language and snappy timing look easy. No false notes break into our enjoyment, and that’s saying something. The newlyweds’ apartment (designed by Doyle), transformed from empty shell to first home, is endearingly grown-up and respectable—though Corie Bratter might have chosen an edgier style—and prettily lit by Josh Hensley with dappled light from the skylight above.
The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and so many more. Will Simon’s work last? In truth, most plays are unplayable after a few generations, and comedies are especially hard to keep alive. But Barefoot just might have a chance to make the cut, if only because the play’s premise is so simple and universal.
After the wildly successful run of Simon’s career from the 1960s through the 1980s, the New York critics tended to review him as something of a relic—funny, but in a dated, sitcom-adjacent way. I have a theory Simon got less notice because we all, by then, were living in an utterly Neil Simon-ized world. We got used to hearing a “version” of his voice every day, replicated and amplified (well or badly) in the TV and movie comedies of the past two generations. Neil Simon came from writers like Twain, Benchley, Kaufman, Hecht, Sturges; he wrote with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen; and he generated a whole world of comic style and storytelling that bore his stamp, even when its creators didn’t always know it.
Neil Simon remains one of the masters of the American voice, of that strain of wisecracking, irreverent, breezily funny chatter that seems to have come over on the Mayflower (or some other boat) with our cheesed-off ancestors. Millions of Americans, light years away from New York City and Simon’s own experience, recognized that voice, absorbed it into their bones—and laughed their asses off.