A comedy can be funny and fresh and utterly delightful when it makes its debut on the Great White Way. That's often because many of the laughs bloom from the very particular era in which they have been seeded. Then the playwright spins the top of contemporary culture and tries to snag all the topical humor that flies from the vortex of that little tornado.
And this was exactly what happened when Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park wowed audiences in 1963. It was Simon's second Broadway show and ran for 1,530 performances, the tenth longest running non-musical in Broadway history. There was also a movie born from the play.
Then, time happens. And the play that seemed so fresh and jaunty feels flat and jaundiced.
So more than a few of us are asking, why did the highly respectable theater department at the University of Arizona choose Simon's Barefoot in the Park to open their season? Would it be that were aiming to have their young thespians take on what could only be called a period piece? Because, as the evening unfolds, that's really what it seems to be in 2015.
Here's the set-up. Paul (Aaron Arseneault) and Corie (Audrey Roberts) are newlyweds. I mean, really-wink-wink-newlyweds. We meet Corie first, and she is trying to make the tiny fifth-floor walk-up shine in its best possible light. She's fretful in anticipation for the homecoming of her new hubby, who has really never seen this particular apartment, but a "similar" one on the third floor. The furniture hasn't arrived, the telephone guy has climbed the mini-Everest to install the phone and Corie is concerned that her buttoned-down beau will not appreciate the setting at all.
Nor will her mother (Jamie Grossman) Corie worries, who drops in and shows a bit of charity as she tries to temper her shock as she surveys the place. When Paul arrives, Corie is all over him—oh, she's missed him so much—which although may be true, is partly a distraction him from looking too closely at their love nest. The bedroom is—well, a closet – big enough for only a twin bed; there is no bathtub, to Paul's displeasure; and there are unusual inhabitants, he has learned, on the other floors. But they're no match for Victor Velasco (Sterling Boyns), an odd dude who lives in the attic above the newlyweds place, having forgone paying rent for several months, and whose only access to his place is through the Paul and Corie's closet, er, bedroom.
OK. That sounds fine and broadly appealing enough. But it doesn't take long, as details are filled in, for the premise to begin to stutter, and some of those details are a bit hard to swallow.
It seems like a 50-year-old comedy would still have plenty to offer in the way of laughs, and, actually, it does. The nature of comedy hasn't changed. The mis-matched couples, the secrets which must be hidden from others at all costs (and often the failure to do so,) the presence of a strange character or two, physical comedy, complications caused by the setting itself—all these are built into Simon's script. And the execution here is good enough that we enjoy some honest laughs.
But, it seems like the play is having a mid-life crisis. It's in some meta-space between "ah-isn't-that-deliciously-charming," and, "whoa-we're-not-quite-as nimble-on-our-feet-as-we-used-to-be." And the vision of the director, faculty member Kevin Black, and the execution of the young actors are just never able to create a suitable bridge across that space.
For one thing, there's a serious lack of balance within the cast. Roberts as Corie gives us not so much a free-spirited love child as an adult who needs some medication to counter her physical over-activity. It's almost impossible to find one bit of nuance in her take on this character, and it's hard to believe that a sensible young lawyer like Paul could ever have been attracted to her. And although Arseneault gives us a likeable and credible guy, his Paul really could be a lot more seriously buttoned up. The conflict on which Simon hangs his comic momentum is her spontaneity and willingness to cross boundaries versus his caution and care and responsibility and need for order and predictability.
Add to this whirlwind the way over the top performance of Boyns as Velasco. Instead of a delightfully-and genuinely-quirky man who helps to heighten the adventures of the young couple, we get more of a creepy weirdo. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, a less-is-more approach to a character like this often carries a much bigger payoff.
Grossman as Corie's mother seems to understand this, and her performance lends a much welcome and credible sense of her character and it's place in all the mad carrying-ons. She lets us know exactly who she is and we end up loving her for it. And Kasey Caruso and Alec Michael Coles give us entertaining little cameos as the telephone guy and delivery man, appearing breathless but good natured after their five flight trek.
So, this show may not be the best example of ART's usually impressive output. But there is a big challenge here, especially when the play seems just too neither this or that to translate into fun for us now. Perhaps it just proves too challenging for a young group to wrestle into contemporary comic resonance.