Not So Fresh
A revival of Neil Simon's 1963 whipped cream of a play, Barefoot in the Park certainly sounds delicious. After all, the 1967 film version still buzzes with the comedic zing that Simon and his one-liners are famous for, chronicling the struggles of two newlyweds in New York City: Robert Redford as young fuddy-duddy lawyer Paul, and Jane Fonda as his sexy new bride Corie. But under Steven Fenley's direction, the production at Texas Repertory Theatre Co. isn't fresh enough to appeal to us all over again.
Liz Freese's set is the first thing the audience encounters. She's worked hard to re-create a tiny Greenwich Village fifth-floor walk-up, circa 1960. With its small kitchen and multi-paned skylight, it actually resembles the set in the film, but the quaint use of old-timey flats and risers and wood-like doors feels tired and hackneyed. Just because a show was written in the '60s doesn't mean a designer has to use techniques from the era. But because she does, the production looks dated before the actors set foot onstage.
At the center of this story is an attractive young couple who must navigate the fragile first steps of a '60s-style marriage. On the wild side is Corie (Beth Hopp), an original young woman who is nonetheless delighted to be Mrs. Paul Bratter, the sort of wife who stays home to decorate and wait for the telephone man while her husband goes out to make his way as a lawyer in the Big Apple. Traditional as she might be, she's fiery enough to have picked out an apartment in the Village, where the neighbors are all unusual. At one point, Paul (Stephen Myers) is shocked to learn that a same-sex couple occupies an apartment downstairs. Meanwhile, Corie likes anything new, including exotic food, her oddball upstairs neighbor and walking barefoot in the park.
Casting is a problem with Fenley's well-intentioned production. Hopp is a perfectly appealing actress, but her Corie comes off more like a hardworking lawyer herself than like the slightly dingy, effervescent wife who wants, more than anything, to loosen up her "stuffed shirt" of a husband. Myers is more believable as the carefully measured Paul, who doesn't like the apartment because it doesn't have a bathtub and doesn't miss his new wife on his first day back at work after the honeymoon because she called him eight times. "I don't talk to you that much when I'm home," he quips. But Myers's Paul and Hopp's Corie don't strike up much in the way of sparks, since neither is that different from the other. Without sexual chemistry, their fights don't mean much, so it's hard to care whether or not they make up.
Most of the other performances don't quite ring true either. Helen Myers plays Ethel Banks, Corie's single mom, who lives in suburban New Jersey. And Michael Steinbach plays Victor Velasco, the wacky, attic-dwelling neighbor who calls Corie "unbearably pretty" when he meets her and the landlord a "rat fink" when the heat won't turn on. Though both Myers and Steinbach look the parts, neither manages to capture the zany lightness of being that a story this fluffy needs to keep it puffed full of comedic air. Only Craig Miller (who also created the terrific '60s soundtrack) plays his part as the telephone repairman with the right sort of energy and tone to make this material truly enjoyable after all these years.
Speaking of soundtracks, one of the best things about the show is the fabulous old tunes. Songs like "What the World Needs Now" and "The Game of Love" (both of which actually came out two years after Simon's play is set) capture the spirit this production is going for. But the show itself is too tame to be sexy, too measured to be zany and too tired to bring anything new to Simon's Hallmark card of a comedy.
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