TWN’s “Barefoot” Still Relevant
Simon comedy at Bennett Hall through June 17
By Jim Sulzer
Theatre Workshop of Nantucket’s production of “Barefoot in the Park,” which opened last week at Bennett Hall, is a high-energy exploration of the simmering tensions of a newly-married couple in Manhattan in the early 1960’s.
The first major hit by the superb comic dramatist Neil Simon, this 1963 play now seems to come from a different era than ours. It remains relevant and enjoyable, however, because of Simon’s extraordinary facility for clever plotting and dialogue and – in this production – because of the very talented cast that TWN has brought together, under the confident direction of Justin Cerne.
Simon’s artistry thrives on the humorous mismatch of couples, and in this play the main mismatch is between two newlyweds. Kaitlyn Jane Kurowski plays the vivacious live-in-the-moment Corie, and Jeff Barry plays her eminently sober, career-conscious husband, Paul. Last summer, Kurowski and Barry lit up the TWN stage in David Ives’ edgy drama “Venus in Fur,” which showcased the powerful depths that both actors bring to the stage.
Early in this show, they seem to be trying to adjust their performances to inhabit a much lighter and more sentimental world of a Neil Simon comedy. Some of the early interactions of the doting husband and wife feel as if they are still finding their rhythm.
As the play develops in intensity, however, and as the problem between the newlyweds starts to spin out of control, these two actors hit their stride. They play the fight scenes with passion and power, mining each dramatic situation and comic interchange for all it’s worth, creating memorable moments not only of comedy but of real devastation and loss.
Kurowski is especially strong in scenes with her mother (Susan Lucier), when she navigates the fine line between deferential daughter and independent woman. Throughout her performance she exudes charisma and a strong presence.
Barry does a splendid job revealing his character’s underside during the marital fights and his subsequent unwinding. He also has an excellent sense of comic timing.
The play features two other leading characters who are also a mismatch: Corie’s unadventurous mother, Ethel, and an upstairs neighbor, the high-spirited gourmet Victor Velasco. Lucier brings subtlety and sympathetic intelligence to the role of Ethel, which is sometimes played as a shallow foil to the other characters. TWN newcomer Douglas Rees brings warmth, brio and charm to the character of Victor, saving it from the dated stereotype that Simon seemed to draw upon.
Simon brilliantly interweaves the two couple’s interactions. The surprising developments between Ethel and Victor help to precipitate a growing crisis between Corie and Paul, leading to insights that flow out of the comic and not-so-comic troubles that the characters set off like fireworks in one another as they change and grow.
Simon wrote this play just before a number of major seismic shifts in our culture: for example, just before women began to enter the workforce in large numbers. Later in his career, the playwright would chronicle some of these cultural shifts in his new works, as well as in his 1985 revision of “The Odd Couple.”
But “Barefoot” has not been revised, and indeed its delicate depiction of an early 1960s marriage is probably best left untouched. The result, however, is that the subsequent seismic shifts may create some cracks, as it were, in the plaster of a modern production.
When Corie’s mother announces partway through “Barefoot” that she might try to get a job, one can imagine a 1963 audience gasping at the audacity of such a suggestion by a woman of 50, something that probably seems quite unremarkable to most of us today.
When Corie complains about Paul’s preoccupation with work when he comes home at night, largely because she has been waiting at home all day for him, it might strike a modern theatre-goer that she needs to get a life, or a career, of her own, though her stay-at-home situation was probably par for the course back then.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon: The world of the play is different from our world today, but not quite different enough to feel like a historical drama, which would demand that we interpret the events in the altered context of an earlier era.
But if the play seems to exist in its own time, it still works very well on today’s stage. The rhythm of language and the ups and downs of relationships remain fairly constant from one era to the next. And the comic mastery in Simon’s use of language – his remarkable gift for repartee – seems destined to dazzle and entertain audiences for decades to come.
Simon is also an extremely economical writer, extracting every possible ounce out of his dramatic material. The title, “Barefoot in the Park,” refers to the fact that the stuffed-shirt Paul has refused to join the free-spirited Corie for a barefoot stroll across Washing Square Park in the middle of winter.
With a skilled dramatist like Simon, that theme and event will return somewhere near the end of the action, in a new arrangement of characters, with implications that signal the devolution of the plot.
In addition to the four main characters, Simon includes a supporting character who appears at the start and again near the conclusion of the play: the Telephone Repair Man, played with easy humor by Nantucketer Bill Mogensen.
Though a minor character, he receives some of Simon’s best lines, and Mogensen’s tactful depiction of the repairman’s discomfort at seeing Corie and Paul’s marital discord is a nice addition to the show.
As director, Cerne integrates all the stage action with style and grace, creating a natural flow. The choice of 1960s songs for scene changes is also quite nice.
Peter Waldron’s set closely follows Simon’s notes and evokes a 1960s sort of feel, complete with a damaged skylight that plays a prominent role. The costumes by Jimm Halliday are bright and attractive. The lighting design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg is smooth and effective.
One small note on the playbill: It would be nice if TWN were to include Simon’s scene breakdown of the three acts, since the days and times of the action are significant.
“Barefoot in the Park” 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday, 2pm Sunday through June 17, Bennett Hall, 62 Centre St. www.theatreworkshop.com