Jill Clayburgh and Patrick Wilson inBarefoot in the Park
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jill Clayburgh and Patrick Wilson in
Barefoot in the Park
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Forty-five seconds of non-stop laughter. That was the audience response when Paul Bratter plowed into his apartment, having climbed five long flights of stairs -- and having carried his mother-in-law, Mrs. Banks, too. He threw her onto the couch, then collapsed onto it himself as the two of them breathed heavily in-and-out, out-and-in, wondering if their next breaths would be their last. The entire house was convulsed. This, however, happened when I saw the national tour of Barefoot in the Park in 1964 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where the then-unknown Richard Benjamin played Paul (wonderfully) and no less than Myrna Loy portrayed Mrs. Banks (equally wonderfully). As for the current revival of Barefoot in the Park at the Cort, the adequate Patrick Wilson and the woefully miscast Jill Clayburgh get 4.5 seconds of laughter for the same scene.

Many pro and amateur critics who've already seen director Scott Elliott's new Barefoot say that the play is dated. Granted, people keep themselves in better shape today, but that's not why people aren't laughing hard at this scene; it's because Elliott did a terrible job in finding the laughs that original director Mike Nichols effortlessly found in 1963. Though Nichols's production, which received unanimous raves, is gone forever, there is the still-excellent 1967 film. It features two of the original leads, Robert Redford as Paul and Mildred Natwick as Mrs. Banks, who know how to get the most out of this scene.

I suspected that this Barefoot was in trouble as soon as the curtain rose on the Bratters' not-yet-furnished apartment. Simon's original stage direction states that Corie, Paul's madcap wife, enters looking "lovely, young, and full of hope for the future." Here, Corie is seen doing the unglamorous job of putting paste on the back of wallpaper. Where's the magic? A kid entering his first-ever apartment and thinking the dump is the sun and the moon will never be dated.

Elliott's biggest laugh comes when Corie puts way too much vermouth in the martinis she makes, causing everyone who tastes them to wince. Barefoot may or may not be dated, but this joke -- which is not in Simon's script -- sure is. We've all seen it many times. Elliott also goes for an old gag right after the out-of-breath scene, when he has Mrs. Banks light and smoke a cigarette -- but Mrs. B. is a conservative woman who wouldn't smoke. The director shouldn't have cast Clayburgh anyway, for she's too natively sophisticated and glamorous for Mrs. Banks. Isaac Mizrahi hasn't helped by giving her a dazzling dress for her second scene. (Compare it to the matter-of-fact suit that Natwick nattily wore.) Mrs. Banks wouldn't constantly check her make-up and lipstick, but Elliott has Clayburgh do that, too. And when mom inadvertently sends a piece of food traveling across the room, Clayburgh smiles at her own gaffe. No! Mrs. B. would be humiliated, which is how Nichols had Natwick appear.

The film's Corie (Jane Fonda) and jaunty upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco (Charles Boyer) are respectively much better than Amanda Peet and Tony Roberts, but the movie's unsung hero is another original Broadway cast member: Herbert Edelman as telephone installer Harry Pepper. Adam Sietz, who plays the role in Elliott's production, has been praised by many critics, but Edelman is substantially better in the flick. He creates a genuinely nice guy who likes his work. After he installs the Bratters' phone, he says to Corie in a heartfelt manner, "Have a nice marriage -- and may you soon have many extensions." Elliott has Sietz leer and make the line sound sexual!

Edelman also scores hilariously in his second scene, arriving to fix the phone after Paul has yanked out the cord during a fight with Corie. He's unnerved by the chilliness between the newlyweds, so he speeds up his work to a frenetic pace so he can get the hell out of there. Then Paul gets up and walks towards him -- just to get a drink -- but Edelman lets out a moan of fright and backs himself against the wall, fearing that Paul will kill him. It's a hilarious bit, but you won't find it in the show at the Cort. Besides, we can barely see Harry working, thanks to the way Elliott has blocked Sietz. Along those lines: Why does Elliott have his cast say so many lines while facing the back wall? Is this to suggest realism and to counter the old "artificial" comedic style of delivering funny lines right to the house so we can hear and savor them?

Where is Elliott's eye for detail? In the scene where Mrs. Banks enters wearing only Victor's bathrobe (because her clothes have been stained and damaged, and are now at a dry cleaner's), Elliott has Clayburgh go into Corie and Paul's bathroom, then has her step out of it while brushing her teeth. Where did she get the toothbrush? She didn't have her purse when she went in there. Is it Paul's toothbrush? Corie's? Either way, this is a pretty distasteful image, though it's a good metaphor for the lack of taste Elliott shows in interpreting this play.

So, is Barefoot dated? We no longer have Princess phones, letter prefixes on telephone numbers, McCall's magazine, or $125-per-month rents for two-room Manhattan apartments. Some say that what's most dated about the play is Mrs. Banks's marital advice to her daughter: "You've just got to give up a little of you for him." Yet most anyone in a serious relationship knows that he or she does wind up compromising for the other party. That's part of the price you pay when you're in love, and we either believe or rationalize that it's worth it. But nothing in the current Barefoot is worth the price of a ticket. To me, this revival is the theatrical equivalent of seeing an old friend murdered.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]