There was a time not too long ago when going to a Neil Simon comedy was a virtual guarantee of almost constant laughter. Times they are a changing!
If “Barefoot in the Park” encouraged waves of laughter when it first opened on Broadway in 1963, the current revival offers little to either revive or support that response. To be sure, it was the first mega hit for the playwright who would go on for decades to write hits — for the most part, joke-propelled situation comedies. Of course, there was a serious side to Simon that surfaced and was duly lauded in such plays as “Lost in Yonkers” and “Chapter Two.” You could say that the prolific playwright (31 plays on Broadway, three Off-Broadway) inherited the mantle of Clyde Fitch, an extremely popular late 19th century/early 20th century playwright notable for writing 62 plays, 36 of which were original, the rest adaptations and dramatizations of novels, and all notably superficial.
Even for those of us of a certain age who remember light romantic comedy before television completely usurped this brand of set-up and punch-line writing, “Barefoot” seems a risky venture. Perhaps the producers thought there might be a Simon renaissance, given the current success of “The Odd Couple.” That the edgy New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott would be attracted to this bit of foolish, improbable, and grievously dated fluff is in itself curious. It would have probably been a more amusing adventure for all concerned if he had impressed his well-earned directorial style on an opus by Fitch.
“Barefoot” revolves around a young couple’s marital adjustments in their first apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up, six if you include the front stoop. Complete with the obligatory mother-in-law and horny neighbor, the jokes and incredulous situations are such an intrinsic part of the play that one tends to forget the lack of plot while taking in Simon’s insights into nothing much in particular. Director Elliott has gone to great lengths to sustain whatever poses as funny in the script. The actors speak loudly when not actually shouting at each other. The garret, being quite a climb, affords innumerable possibilities for actors to create varied entrances as a result of their exhaustion and frustration.
Audiences are generally quick to respond to old-time vaudeville shtick and double-takes in outrageous situations. But these entrances into the Bratter’s apartment grow tedious very quickly. It’s all downhill (no pun intended) after the tortured arrival of an obese telephone repairman (Adam Sietz), followed by an asthmatic Lord and Taylor delivery man (Sullivan Walker). Fortunately Amanda Peet, who distinguished herself last season Off-Broadway in Neil LaBute’s “This Is How It Goes” and in the current film “Syriana,” doesn’t have to prove much beyond being perky and quirky in this her Broadway debut. Unfortunately, what she is assigned to prove in this case is that she can bob and bounce around the stage like a bunny rabbit and suggest there is something seriously skewed in her character, as the volatile, high-strung newlywed Corie Bratter.
The play’s conflict, to put it kindly, hinges on the hasty decisions of this seriously unnerved and unnerving young woman. She has rented an apartment that her unbelievably compliant husband of just six days has not yet seen. Corie doesn’t seem to be bothered that there isn’t a tub for her husband who prefers a bath instead of a shower; that the hole in the skylight is making the apartment insufferably cold — neither does the fact that a walk-in closet-sized dressing room might not be suitable as a bedroom. Forty years ago, did we really never consider whether Corie’s flaky, irrational behavior and blatant immaturity was actually a serious indicator of mental fragility?
The versatile Patrick Wilson, whose musical theater credits (“Oklahoma,” “The Full Monty”), asserts his talents, without singing, most formidably with a comical physicality and a genial disposition that happily does not suggest any diagnosable neurosis. The mother-in-law, in this instance, becomes the only character one feels has any sense of reality. Mrs. Banks is played by the delightful Jill Clayburgh, a recent survivor of this season’s “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way”), a possibly even more woeful comedy, if that’s possible. Clayburgh has some amusing and real moments, especially during her morning-after-the-night-before scene in which she has to explain her indiscretion to her daughter. However, she too gets our goat with her offensive chain smoking.
Tony Roberts, a veteran of the original company (he replaced Robert Reed, who replaced Robert Redford), dives with aplomb into the more or less obnoxious role of Victor Velasco, the upstairs lecher.
One has to commend set designer Derek McLane for coming up with a comically ghastly set notable for the way it intimates Corie’s lack of taste. The green-blue striped wallpaper, the gold valance and drapes and the turquoise upholstered furniture, undoubtedly purchased without Paul’s input, suggests a form of decorative dementia. After a few minutes looking at this one begins to long for the cold drab unfurnished room we see in the first scene when it’s still full of possibilities.
Throwing around a full-length blonde mink coat and looking stunning in a balsam green suit, Clayburgh comes off the winner in the fashion department thanks to costumer Isaac Mizrahi. The only mistake the telephone repairman made when he came back for a second visit was not to call 911. This is the second Simon comedy to be revived this season. Whether it holds up depends upon your enthusiasm for Simon’s comedies and how his one-liners hit you these days. **
“Barefoot in the Park,” Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th Street. $26.95 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.