The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, July 7, 2000, Arts

Barefoot in the Park:

In the Pleasure of Their Company

Mary Moody Northen Theatre,

through July 16

Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min

The course of true love never did run smooth ... especially up six flights of stairs in an old New York City apartment building. Such is the romantic lesson of Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon's early comedy about newlyweds in a nosebleed-high love nest. Its young lovers, Paul and Corie Bratter, must contend with not only the usual stresses in a weeklong marriage -- like the shocking little discoveries about each other's personal habits that you just never noticed before the wedding -- but also the physical strain of every trip home being like a hike up Pike's Peak. It's hard to be amorous -- or even attentive -- when you're desperately gulping oxygen.

The actors in this St. Edward's University Mary Moody Northen Theatre revival are nothing if not adept at conveying the punishment of climbing to the Bratters' connubial aerie. As telephone repairman Harry Pepper, Phil Ayliff gasps and wheezes like a grouper that's been plucked out of the East River and dropped in Times Square. As Mrs. Banks, mom to bride Corie, Babs George registers wide-eyed shock, as if all the systems in her body have abruptly undergone the equivalent of a Big Apple electrical blackout. And as young groom Paul, Bradley Carlin just collapses, a marionette whose strings have been severed. These actors' effusive depictions go a long way toward making this, ahem, tired running gag work.

By and large, that's true of the show overall. Director Melba Martinez has cast it with artists who are expressive and animated, and their vitality energizes the proceedings. Brooke Parker radiates the kind of moonstruck exuberance that belongs only to those young and madly in love; she flits and flies about Mark Porter's multilevel set like a pixy in springtime, and she lavishes affection on Carlin's Paul so ardently that you have to smile. Carlin is obligated by the script to be more reserved, but he shows enough reciprocity -- coupled with some sly deadpan facetiousness -- to be winning and for us to approve of his and Corie's match. Sacha Bodner manages to evoke the savoir-faire of a man twice his age and to play mild eccentricity in ways that spice up the character rather than drown it in mannerisms. And Babs George lights up the stage with a string of incandescent comic masterstrokes: a double take of dismay here, a strained laugh there, a telling pause, a laugh that melts into a look of total perplexity, a wince and a choke from an accidental swig of a martini, a face-forward fall over the back of a sofa. George is on a priceless comedic roll here -- continuing the one she started over at the State Theater in Women Who Steal -- and on the way she not only nails the laughs but creates an endearingly bewildered and vulnerable woman that we just like to be around. In fact, as performed by this company, all these characters are so appealing and congenial that you enjoy being in their presence -- a quality that is welcome here.

Barefoot in the Park may be one of Simon's historic successes, but 37 years after its debut the comedy no longer ranks among the playwright's most tightly crafted scripts. Like the stairway to the Bratters' apartment, the three-act structure takes us a loooong way for what is in the end a pretty modest affair. At heart, this is a play about that first big test for young marrieds, the one in which they see whether their love is strong enough to survive their differences as people, with the tale of a middle-aged widow who's also being tested, to see if she's ready for a second life, thrown in for good measure. Both conflicts are simple, straightforward, and can be dealt with directly and succinctly, but Simon took his time with them, like a realtor giving a roundabout tour of a property, padding the presentation with diversions and side stories. It may be pleasant -- and Simon's work here is -- but you can see where things could be moved along.

With Martinez's light directorial hand and the efforts of this lively cast, the shortcomings of Simon's script are easy enough to endure. We are in such pleasant company that we can wave away the meandering exposition and elongated set-ups of Act One, and the repetitious verbal sparring of Act Three. After all, these are the kind of nice folks that you'll do almost anything for, even hike up six flights in an old apartment building.

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