It is frustrating when a production has a number of admirable pieces but doesn’t quite assemble a satisfying whole. You’re sitting there in your seat, pulling for the obviously talented team telling a story in front of you, but it doesn’t compile itself into something that hits the spot. I’m sorry to say that Bucks County Playhouse’s production of “Barefoot in the Park” is exactly that sort of show. It looks good, and there are joyful moments here and there, but a curious lack of energy and uneven tone robs Neil Simon’s classic script of much of its charm.
“Barefoot in the Park” is the first full-scale production at the risen-from-the-ashes new regime at the Playhouse. And the choice of this play is a nice bit of reverence for the theater’s legacy — under the title “Nobody Loves Me,” the play premiered at Bucks County Playhouse 50 years ago before going on to one of the longest and most storied runs of any play in Broadway history.
The play is one of those chestnuts that theaters keep going back to because it’s a tried-and-true romantic comedy that usually works. Newlyweds Paul (Lee Aaron Rosen) and Corie (Virginia Veale) wrap up their six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel by moving into a fifth-floor walkup in Midtown Manhattan. It’s 1963, the apartment costs an obscenely high $125 a month (!) and has a hole in the skylight, a teeny bedroom, and an affably eccentric upstairs neighbor.
The first week of their marriage ends with Paul and Corie exploring their relationship and each other between the four walls of their apartment, with the big question being: can this relationship survive this living situation?
Fifty years ago this was the definition of new-school romantic comedy. Part of the problem with this production is that the script is starting to get a little long in the tooth, after hundreds if not thousands of films that go back to “Barefoot” as a blueprint. Even a high-profile Broadway production with an all-star cast and designs by Isaac Mizrahi failed several years ago. Maybe it’s that relationships have changed, and not all plays can stand the test of time effectively.
But I’m resistant to that notion. The problem here primarily comes in the form of timing and chemistry. Sheryl Kaller’s direction plays to the jokes and the broad strokes, but it doesn’t really give Paul and Corie much to do. By the end of the play, these two are sort of ciphers in terms of what they really want. Without any sense of more depth or connection, all we have is two 20-somethings whining about how hard being newly married is. It’s a squandered opportunity.
This production does far better in its supporting players. Candy Buckley as Corie’s mother is winning and adorable and sharp, a West Orange widow trying to both give her daughter a little distance and inject two (or more) cents where she can. And Jonathan Hadary as upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco steals the whole production. Victor’s weirdness is grounded and huge at the same time and really fun to watch. Between Hadary’s performance and James Noone’s stunning set design (transformed from bare to inhabitable at lightning speed in the first brief intermission) is almost worth the price of admission.
But these bright spots, as glowing as they are, can’t quite make up for the pitfalls to be found here. When the couple undergoes a fight that swirls into a breakup at the end of act two, it’s supposed to be heartbreaking. You want Corie and Paul to work it out, and you want the last scene of the play to hold some serious weight as it tugs at your heartstrings. And that just doesn’t happen here. We’re left watching two young people squabble about growing pains as if they are high-stakes issues, and it’s hard to find any gravitas there.
It’s a balancing act that ends up teetering off the deep end, and the cute little moment at the end is too little, too late.
All in all, it’s good to have Bucks County Playhouse back. I’m rooting for the theater to hit it out of the park on its next offering.
Barefoot in the Park, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, September 2. $25 to $54. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.