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Barefoot in the Park

David Finkle discovers that Neil Simon's 1963 comedy hasn't worn well over the years. logo
Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet in Barefoot in the Park
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Do you ever have one of those dreams in which someone is telling jokes so thigh-slappingly funny that you want desperately to remember them when you wake up? Then you wake up, remember them -- and they're not funny. They're so far from funny, in fact, that you wonder what you were thinking. The only solace is that you didn't embarrass yourself by laughing at them in real life.

Watching Scott Elliott's revival of Neil Simon's 1963 comedy Barefoot in the Park, a virtually plotless confection about the post-honeymoon days of a middle-class urban couple, is like that humiliating dawn's-early-light experience. But the initial 1,530-performance run of Simon's breakthrough opus, so delectably directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Mildred Natwick, and Kurt Kasznar, wasn't a dream. So now I'm in need of a reality check. Where is the 1963 theatergoer who can tell me what we were giggling at so consistently? And how many 2006 theatergoers, seeing Barefoot for the first time, will think that we must have been off our rockers for all that chuckling?

I'm prepared to hear a few explanations as to why what was such a hoot then is so ho-hum now. One will undoubtedly be that Barefoot in the Park dates from a more innocent time -- but the truth is that the 1960s weren't an innocent time. In fact, it was in 1963 that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a seminal treatise that questioned the sanguinity of someone like Corie Bratter (Amanda Peet, in a so-so Broadway debut) declaring that she needs her husband Paul (Patrick Wilson) to tell her how much money to spend. Still, with the possible exception of some feminists, we all found the line amusing when the play was new.

Charm may have been the intangible ingredient that distinguished Simon's fluffy piece back then. Nichols and his accomplished troupe -- including Herb Edelman as a friendly telephone installer -- waved the play before our eyes as a hypnotist waves a pocket watch. I still smile when I think of Mildred Natwick, as Corie's mom, wondering where the kitchen is located in her just-married daughter's start-up East Side apartment, then spotting the skimpy area across the stage and saying, "Ah, there it is!" A nothing line was made memorable by Natwick's incomparable timing.

But as Elliott and his accomplished colleagues now wave Barefoot in front of our eyes, they're unable to weave any spell whatsoever. "Okay, I'll be civilized, but charm you're not going to get," Paul says as divorce becomes an issue on the tenth day or so of the Bratters' marriage. Brother, is he right! And without charm, Simon's romp isn't simply barefoot; it's buck naked. Moreover, the piece registers as extremely dated, and not just because it's set in a period when Schrafft's still existed and cell phones didn't. The era has long since passed when it was highly diverting for an audience to see characters out of breath after climbing five flights of stairs. (The show's problems do not lie in Derek McLane's canny if too big set, Isaac Mizrahi's evocative but not self-aggrandizing costumes, or Ken Travis's sound design, which makes use of golden oldies such as The Supremes' "I Hear a Symphony.")

Although TV sitcoms predated Simon's work, the humorist did set the style for many sitcoms to come. But just as that stretch of boob-tube history has apparently reached an end, the play seems decidedly irrelevant to contemporary concepts of humor. Furthermore, today's audiences might conclude that the seemingly happy ending wherein Corie and Paul reiterate their love is only a short-term solution. She's too unformed and he's too ambitious for the marriage to last; their mooted divorce has only been postponed.

The cast members, including Tony Roberts as upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco, are to be commended for trying their damnedest with the work. One thing that can be said in their favor -- and for Elliott's direction -- is that they make a number of sight gags connect. When Paul sips a martini that Corie has shaken not stirred, Wilson puts on a priceless face. In time, Jill Clayburgh (as Corie's mom) and Roberts do something similar. There's also a sly joke involving a literally stuffed shirt that's good for a laugh.

It's a good thing that the underrated Odd Couple remounting, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick once again doing bang-up tandem work, is playing just a few blocks away. That production not only serves as proof that Simon can be both hilarious and touching when he wants, it also shows that a wholesale reassessment of his extraordinary career isn't called for.

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