The set-up: In Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Neil Simon's take on the midlife marital crisis centers on the owner of a seafood restaurant who sees life passing him by, and thinks an extra-marital fling may be the answer to joining the parade.
The execution: Theatre Southwest two years ago presented a well-acted Plaza Suite by Neil Simon, and returns to the popular playwright with a production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which had a two-year run on Broadway and was a Tony Award nominee for best play. The title is ironic, as restaurateur Barney Cashman's sexual experience is limited to his wife and a15-minute financial transaction when he was 18.
The sexual revolution not only passed him by, it never even threw him a fleeting glance. So playwright Simon has given us a central character without experience, without charm, and without a sense of humor. Only a truly gifted actor could make this role interesting, and director Lisa Schofield has found him, in the person of Bob Maddox.
The play has three acts, so Simon's formulaic writing give us three attempted seductions. The first is with Elaine Navazio, a cut-to-the-chase attractive and forthright woman, played with great timing and finesse by Melissa J. Mayo. This is the least complex of the three sexual anecdotes, and reminded me of the line in Born Yesterday: "Are you one of those talkers, or would be you be interested in a little action?" Maddox and Mayo make this one-joke section work, carrying the burden of slack writing on the shoulders of thoroughly professional acting skills.
Simon's capacity for inventiveness picks up with Act Two, as the assignation - all these take place in the borrowed studio apartment of Barney's mother - is with Bobbi Michele, played by Kelly Walker with an endearing bubbling charm. Walker portrays a vivacious non-stop talker, an airhead and a pot smoker, and makes her every move interesting - no small feat. Maddox gets to demonstrate here a greater range than Act One, as he joins Bobbi for a puff of the weed.
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In Act Three, Barney seems to have had a testosterone injection, as he is suddenly and unexpectedly feisty, intent on having his way with a family friend, Jeanette Fisher, played by Vicky McCormick. Jeanette, however, is so deep into therapy and even deeper into depression, that one prays that the seduction never occurs, as it would have all the excitement of watching grass grow. Jeanette is another Simon role where the actor must save the day, and McCormick struggles valiantly, like a fish on a hook, but can't quite make Jeanette three-dimensional.
Maddox has an engaging, likable persona, and this goes a long way to make us care about Barney, ineffectual as he is, Maddox captures the intensity of desperation, delivers lines, no matter how implausible, with convincing sincerity, and is a master at conveying emotions, whether in lines or in reactions; Theatre Southwest is lucky to have him. Schofield's direction keeps the pace brisk and the movements of the actors fluid, and she has gone a long way toward finding the humor in scenes that are inherently sad. The set is not only attractive, it is a triumph, with a trompe de l'oeil floor that is staggering in its beauty, thanks to designers Schofield and John Kaiser.
The verdict: If you're a Neil Simon fan, wild horses couldn't keep you away, but for those lukewarm to Simon, it's well-worth a visit to see what made Broadway happy for so long, and to see top actors plying their craft so well.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers continues through January 19, at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information or tickets, call 713-661-9505 or visit the theater's website.