Updated: Jun 12
You will laugh, you may even cry — but mostly you'll laugh.
It’s widely reported that the first year of marriage is the hardest. For Corie and Paul Bratter, their quibbles begin on day seven. Luckily, Laguna Playhouse’s production of Neil Simon's charming 1963 dramatic comedy “Barefoot in the Park” brings an abundance of humor and heart to the trials of this young marriage, thanks in large part to its fiercely funny cast.
Starring Nick Tag (“The Graduate”) and Lily Gibson (“Harvey”) as the newlyweds, with legendary comedian and film star Paul Rodriguez (Yes, THAT Paul Rodriguez!) as Victor Velasco, and Las Vegas “Comedian of the Year” Rita Rudner as Mrs. Banks, Corie's mother. So if it’s a romantic farce you delight in — old-fashioned romance loaded with incongruities and snappy verbal gags — then you should revel here in plenty of impulsive, flapdoodle craziness — plenty of jellybean newlywed barbs, and plenty of the adorably sweet faux pas of young love, not to mention the comic cutups of a sozzled mother-in-law.
According to Simon, this story of newlyweds taken in on their first New York apartment is largely autobiographical, which may account for its appealing, loose structure. The original production was a huge hit, and ran for four years with over 1,530 performances. It was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play, winning a Tony for Best Direction. In 1967, Paramount Pictures made the play into a successful film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, directed by Gene Saks.
"Barefoot…" has always been one of the most successful comedies of the modern stage – virtually the same as when it originally debuted. But then, why tamper with success? Essentially, Neil Simon has taken a common plot used by both Broadway and Hollywood, and, like a potato, sliced it into thin bits—making it as hard to resist as potato chips.
We enter the lives of this winsome couple, just as they are returning from their scorching, six-day honeymoon marathon of mutual appreciation at the Plaza Hotel, emerging back into the real dog-eat-dog world of everyday, mundane routines. Key to the silliness is their awkward apartment, which is located at the very top of a long, exhausting flight of stairs.
Yet our impulsive Corie couldn’t be more thrilled to play house. Who cares if there’s a hole in the skylight during a snowy February? So what if the five-flight trek upstairs (six, if you count the front stoop) leaves tenants gasping for breath? And no big deal if all the appliances look vintage, like they came from the set of Archie Bunker.
Further complicating things is a broken radiator and a bathroom without tub facilities. Definitely won’t do. And what about that bedroom — it’s so small we can only fit an oversized single bed in it (Corie’s idea, to encourage intimacy), and even then it blocks the closet. Their shoddy starter apartment @ $125 a month is really a character in itself (bravissimo! to scenic designer Stephen Gifford).
Adding to this merry-go-round are a delivery man and a telephone man making infrequent service calls, proving that blue collar workers in the 1960s had some pretty snappy repartee in their customer service manuals. John Massey plays a risible Telephone Repair Man. Mr. Massey hails from national tour “Happy Days,” and was also in Laguna Playhouse’s production of “The Graduate.”
Thomas Silcott, who is also the Velasco understudy, depicts a very jocose Delivery Man. Mr. Silcott’s impressive credits subsume a Broadway stint: “Bring In Da Noise/Bring In The Funk,” and various TV roles, including “Desperate Housewives.” Other neighbors in the building are also described, but unseen, including the quirky same-sex couple downstairs, though no one is sure which sex they are.
But one icing on the cake comes as a complete surprise to Paul and Corie. Seems when they leased their tiny Manhattan apartment they were not informed of a strange neighbor who was living in the attic right above them — an eccentric, bohemian-like aging playboy played by Mr. Rodriguez. Four months behind on his rent, his present mode of entry into his upstairs bungalow bedroom now requires coming through their house, climbing out on the ledge and scooting along (he's five stories up, remember) and up to the window of his place, a move by Mr. Rodriguez that could not be more hilarious.
The silly forays of sexual ardor may be attributed to the fact that newly licensed Ms. Corie Bratter thinks her lawyer-husband is a square because he doesn't like to walk barefoot in the park in the wintertime. Their personalities are defined by contrasting temperaments. Paul is a well-groomed, buttoned-down, straight-arrow lawyer, newly hitched to the fun-seeking sex kitten, Corie, and she in turn is a kooky free spirit who won’t let anything disturb her romantic fantasies.
Meanwhile, forever cautious, Paul has just been assigned his first case at the law firm and just wants a working radiator and a closet that doesn’t flood when the toilet flushes.
And so now, Paul has to go to work. Corie, however, would rather he didn't, reluctant for the fantasy to end. Minutes tick by and Paul is still insisting while Corie continues to purr with naughty alternatives. He's obviously the sensible one, but her? …Apparently, girls just want to have fun. Inevitably, they reach the point where they both begin to irritate one another. They argue, and pretty soon we're all wistful for the screamingly funny highlights that had preceded their spat. It's the moment when you realize just how much fun Ms. Gibson and Mr. Tag deliciously extract out of Simon's witty script.
Corie may best be described as a proto version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, unabashedly girlish with a few personality quirks. MPDG's invariably serve as the romantic interest for a brooding male protagonist, like a Laura Petrie from “Dick Van Dyke” or perhaps a Samantha Stevens. Her objective is to save her husband from a dreary life of workaholic misery and transform him into a psychologically well-rounded man, secure enough in his personhood to…wait for it…run barefoot in the park.
Ms. Gibson and Mr. Tag make an exceedingly charming couple, true, but the shrewd Paul Rodriguez, quick on the uptake, deftly steals the spotlight, playing a character who, though bereft of money, is not without his dapper, worldly charm. His aging Lothario, Victor Velasco, is a nostalgic relic and a poignant reminder of vanished youth. Combined with a pin-striped double-breasted suit, decked with literally every primary color in existence (including cherry red shoes), this “Bluebeard of Tenth Street” (as he is called in the movie) brings a Cab Calloway-esque flair to neighbor Victor.
When he meets Corie for the first time, he happily admits to being a dirty old man. Although, he does note that he is only in his fifties and therefore "still in that awkward phase." Corie is charmed by him, even going as far as covertly arranging a date between Mr. Velasco and her prudish mother.
And what of Mrs. Banks? Best of all is Rita Rudner as the widowed mother, Mrs. Banks. Ms. Rudner has had a very intriguing career, spanning decades. A regular guest on “Johnny Carson” and “Late Night with David Letterman,” you may have also seen her in countless HBO stand-up specials, at a Barnes and Noble book signing for one of her five books, or even on Broadway decades ago. She began her career at 15 as a dancer in “Follies” and “Annie.” Blessed with a beautiful theater voice, polished timing, and the physicality of a true rep actress, she wrings the most out of every line and pause, mixing motherly love, bemusement, exasperation and an underlying wild child while creating the purse-clutching character, Mrs. Banks, all depicted in a vague New Yorkish ethnicity.
Early on, Ms. Rudner’s Mrs. Banks pays a visit to check on her daughter’s situation (in reality to inspect the new apartment). Corie, eager to demonstrate her viability as a housewife, despite the chaos of move-in, asks her mother to come back for dinner in a few days, when all will be perfect. She then schemes to play matchmaker between Mr. Velasco and her mother (an opposites-attract pair if ever there was one) to free her from her prejudices and limitations, much as she aspires to do with Paul. Paul, on the other hand, distrusts the forward neighbor. Velasco represents everything Paul does not want to become: spontaneous, provocative, silly. Of course, those are all traits which Corie values. In fact, were you to overlook Velasco’s shortcomings, time with this fellow might be quite fun.
After a misbegotten dinner with Victor and Ethel, an inebriated Corie and Paul have a knock-down, drag-out fight, energizing the play’s last act. To top it off, Victor has an unfortunate accident and Mrs. Banks has come up missing.
Struggling with their own problems, the young lovers sulk with injured pride, polarized, their tempers flaring, and both seem shocked by the reality that they are less than perfect. She’s angry, he's drunk and it comes as no surprise that soon she’s stuffily organizing the terms of a divorce — a marriage on the rocks.“Your laundry arrived," she simpers. "They stuffed your shirts beautifully." Things verge on the hoopla then even more, as the script becomes feverishly funny.
But if the couple's happiness seems as short as their tempers, their misery is just as temporary, with plenty of Bratter hugs and make-up kisses forthcoming. By the end of the show, even Victor and Ethel have found something in common — stomach trouble.
What really distinguishes “Barefoot in the Park” is Michael Matthew’s skilled direction of a terrific ensemble. The play’s female lead is more challenging to portray than most realize. A less skilled actress can easily turn Corie’s infinite whimsy into annoying shrills. Thankfully, Ms. Gibson interprets Corie with such an infectious joy that the audience can’t help but giggle along.
And with his perpetual worry lines and ramrod-straight posture, Mr. Tag’s Paul is a perfect counterpart, believably head over heels for his wife but struggling to rein in her naïve optimism.
A touching Act II scene between Mr. Tag and the sweetly subtle Ms. Rudner spotlights Paul and his mother-in-law as true kindred spirits, with much more in common than was originally thought.
“Barefoot in the Park” is very much a period piece with a bouncy narrative that evokes nostalgia for an era gone by. It's meant to be overplayed, a little broad, a bit of knockabout, yet catch you up short, often in the wink of an eye, with some emotional moment that surprises you with its intensity.
Kate Bergh’s costume design illustrates the early 1960’s with poise, using patterns that convey Corie’s exuberant spirit and muted colors and straight lines for the reserved Paul. The sound designer is Kate Wecker, lighting designer is Tim Swiss, wig designer Anthony Gagliardi. Casting director is Michael Donovan, CSA, and production stage manager is Art Brickman. That position was originally assigned to long-standing PSM Susie Melissa Walsh, who lost her battle to cancer last fall and is held in fond reminiscence and tribute.
Neil Simon's “Barefoot In The Park” runs from March 1st through March 22nd at the prestigious Laguna Playhouse, celebrating 99 years of performing excellence in the community. Laguna Playhouse is a member of the League of Resident Theatres and is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road.
Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays @ 7:30pm; Saturdays @ 2pm and 7:30pm; Sundays @ 1pm and 5:30pm. Talk-Backs are scheduled following performances on Saturday, March 7th @ 2pm and Thursday, March 12th @ 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased at www.lagunaplayhouse.com , or call 949-497-ARTS(2787). Group discounts are available by calling ext. 229.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle