The summer of love is a kind of mythical mindset that has slipped from our memories in the 21st century, but in 1969, when Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” premiered on Broadway, free love and all of its freedoms and foibles were center stage in society. In Murphys Creek Theatre’s production of the play performed at the Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys, a married man thinks those freedoms are past him and he wants to catch a ride to temporary release from his vows.
As Barney Cushman, David Barbaree perfectly mixes the haphazard emotions roiling inside the married seafood restaurateur; it’s as if he telegraphs what Barney’s feeling on his face, and that’s especially pleasing in the second act.
The play opens with Barney surreptitiously slipping into his mother’s studio apartment. She volunteers twice a week at Mount Sinai Hospital, thank goodness, so the love shack is ready for action, at least until 5 p.m. Barney cautiously sidles in with a briefcase packed with scotch and glasses – mother can’t know he’s dallying, right? Watching Barney fastidiously follow each woman as she touches things in the room is fun because Barbaree’s face is usually screwed into knots.
The first woman is Elaine Novasio, almost pulled from today’s ludicrous housewives TV shows on Bravo. She’s not exactly unhappy in her marriage; she’s just hot to trot, ready for a no-strings-attached romp. Barney’s so nervous that he cannot relax, but his worry over the physical isn’t what trips him up, it’s the fact that he wants to get to know Elaine better before they convert the sofa to a bed.
Charlene West plays Elaine as a seductress in a hot red dress who’s an experienced player. When Barney tells her he’s been married to Thelma for 43 years, Elaine gives a sly glance and says, “Professionals.” After Elaine has a coughing fit and begs for a cigarette, West shifts Elaine’s machinations to a more demanding tone; watch Barbaree try to make Barney settle into the date and you’ll laugh out loud.
Next comes Bobbi Michele, played as the requisite – if more stereotypical than we might like – hippie chick who Barney encountered at a park yesterday. He gave her $20 so she could pay an accompanist at an audition, but Lynette Borelli-Glidewell blissfully plays her as a talentless gal who’s living the dream. The few times she breaks into song are as funny as they are straining to the ears. When Bobbi pulls out a joint, Barney nearly bursts, but after he takes a few reluctant puffs, Barbaree slips into a euphoric jumble of silliness and smiles: “I can hear my eyes blinking.”
Jeanette Fisher is the final fling. Lillian McLeod easily plays the wife of Barney’s best friend, but that’s saying a lot because Jeannette is so jagged. This is easily the most awkward of the trysts because casual references to weekly dinners shared by both couples mix with notions of previously missed connections. That the emotionally raw Jeannette pinned Barney against a counter last week at dinner feels impossible because she’s a wreck. McLeod does very well giving Jeannette the voice of reason in the play, but it’s Simon’s script that leads the last date to the point of the whole show.
As I watched the play, I realized over the course of three acts that the sexual politics of today don’t feel as different as I thought they would, at least where infidelity is concerned. I certainly hope that no one in the audience can directly identify with the characters, but maybe that explains the occasionally nervous titters that come from the crowd. There isn’t much ’60s dialogue – no groovys or cools here – but there are a few racially motivated moments that date the show. It’s clear we’re in another time, but it’s really one that’s slightly more restrained than today.
Yes, this is a slightly dated show, but director Maryann Curmi keeps the dialogue moving quickly (the show does clock in at over two hours). She also seems to have helped the actors amp up the tension, because Barabee is always atwitter and the women each have various pins they poke into Barney’s balloon.
Barney, it turns out, is merely after a connection that he seems to feel he’s lost with Thelma. “Life has been very kind to me, but it goes out of its way to ignore me.” That’s a very sad statement; one that we don’t think belongs in a comedy. But through the laughs, I think this play still manages to prove a point, it just takes a while to get to it.
This is a time capsule kind of truffle that should taste pretty good during today’s depressing times. You’re not going to learn to promote world peace, but you’ll laugh despite yourself.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 22
WHERE: Black Bart Playhouse, 580 Algiers St., Murphys
TICKETS: $20 to $22 at murphyscreektheatre.org or 728-8422
Leave a Reply