For all of his success, Neil Simon gets a bad rap. Whenever people from theater groups talk about how they are trying to distinguish themselves, they’re bound to say something like, “We’re not just doing Neil Simon plays.”
But the hugely popular playwright can provide the basis for a very funny production, like the one Princeton Summer Theater is offering with “Barefoot in the Park,” running through Sunday, July 17, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
The comedy about newlyweds dealing with a creaky apartment, strange neighbors, and a judgmental mother was Simon’s third Broadway venture and a massive hit, running for nearly four years and spawning a successful movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
The entire play takes place in the Manhattan apartment that is the home to Corie Bratter (Rachel Wenitsky) and her husband, Paul (David Bevis). Their marriage is six days old and the apartment on 48th Street is a wakeup call from their honeymoon at the Plaza. It’s small, lacks a bathtub, has a bedroom that can only fit a single bed, and there’s a hole in the skylight.
None of this bothers Corie, who’s swimming in domestic bliss. She inhales the scent of her hubby’s shirt as she folds laundry and is giddy over having her own phone number. “It gives you a sense of power,” she tells the nameless telephone repairman (Christopher J. Beard).
No one else shares her enthusiasm for the flat, not her mother and not the repairman, who’s out of shape and out of breath from walking the six floors of stairs it takes to get to the Bratters’ home (the stairs are a running gag). Corie says it’s only five floors if you don’t count the stoop. “I count the stoop,” Beard deadpans.
Least excited of all is Paul, who never saw his new home while they were apartment hunting. He is upset about the stairs, the lack of a bath, and the hole in the skylight. He is still clearly in love with his new wife but a day’s work and the prospect of working into the night have taken some of the sheen off of him.
And there lies the crux of the play: Corie and Paul go through a lifetime of marriage in one week, starting off with a fairy tale-like romance, declining into a massive fight, and ending up two people with a deeper love who figure out how to live together.
Simon is best-known for his one-liners, and there are plenty here. When Corie’s mother (Katherine Grant-Suttie) asks Paul how the oven caught fire, he replies, “Nothing, we just turned it on.” And when eccentric neighbor Victor Velasco (Adam Zivkovic) talks about the building’s quirks he notes, “My bathtub has been running since 1949.”
Director Lovell Holder does a terrific job of keeping the pace fast but never frantic. And these young actors know how to deliver Simon’s zingers. Grant-Suttie is especially good when Mother first sees the apartment. I loved moments such as when she asks Corie what color she is painting her home and is told it’s already painted. “Very attractive,” she replies with forced enthusiasm.
Simon also has some physical comedy in this play. Grant-Suttie and Bevis are perfect early in Act 2 as they struggle with the effects of Ouzo, the Greek (heavily alcoholic) liqueu r they imbibe on a night out with Victor to Staten Island. Zivkovic gets laughs with some antics as he is seen outside the window in order to get to his apartment (he has been locked out because he is four months behind on his rent).
Wenitsky is terrific as Corie. She perfectly captures the enthusiasm of a newlywed, the stress of dealing with her judgmental mother, and her character’s zest for life. She then crashes convincingly when she realizes her buttoned-up husband isn’t as loose as she is.
Bevis plays the young lawyer to a T, always dressed in a suit and trying to simultaneously build a career and a marriage. He and Wenitsky deserve extra kudos for delivering a vital scene effectively on opening night while a stubborn cell phone rang repeatedly and loudly — shame on the audience member who brought that intrusion to the evening.
The lighting by Chris Gorzelnik and the set design by Jeff Van Velsor complement each other perfectly. As the play opens, the apartment is nearly empty. Bright, harsh lighting and white walls make everything feel unsettled. By the second scene, the furniture has arrived and the lighting is softened, creating a hip dwelling that’s just perfect for a young couple, assuming they can get along.
Beware, however, the gimmick of characters who aren’t in scenes watching the action from outside the window (though it does provide one laugh). And the playing of music during a key scene had the feel of a modern rom-com movie.
Another trick has the actors opening the play by reading the stage directions and character descriptions. I worried that this might continue throughout the show, but it ends when the action starts. And it serves a purpose because some of these actors are much younger than their characters, and addressing that upfront helped with the necessary suspension of disbelief.
The play is an ideal evening of summer entertainment. This cast and crew deserves high praise, and packed houses, for what they’ve accomplished.
“Barefoot in the Park,” through Sunday, July 17, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University Campus. $20 to $25. 1-877-238-5596 or www.pst2011.org.