Barefoot in the Park
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 21, 2006
There is good news to report about the current Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s 1963 classic, Barefoot in the Park: it is much better than its recent deluge of bad reviews would lead one to believe. Yes, it’s not quite as good as it could be. And, yes, there is one big problem that keeps the production from realizing its full potential (more on that later). But, there is nothing here that is beyond repair. On the contrary, I would say that, with a nip here and a tuck there, this Barefoot is much closer to being really good than it is to being really bad.
First, though, let me say outright that comparisons of this production to the original, or even to the 1967 movie version, are unfair. It’s like comparing apples and oranges: it just can’t be done. The original Broadway production broke new ground by creating a template for the modern sitcom (which Simon fine tuned with his next play, The Odd Couple), starting the playwright’s commanding reign on the Great White Way (which has only abated in recent years), and launching the careers of Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, and director Mike Nichols. The subsequent film version preserved two of Barefoot’s original stage performances (those of Redford and Mildred Natwick) and featured Jane Fonda in a star-making performance.
The current Barefoot revival, on the other hand, is not out to make any such history. And, in a way, it can’t. The newness of the play has worn off because it—and Simon’s entire canon—is so well-known. And with a well-heeled cast and director leading the way this time around, there is no new ground to be broken. This Barefoot simply wants to entertain, which is all that Simon has ever been interested in doing, anyway.
The story centers on Paul and Corie Bratter, two young newlyweds who have just moved into their first apartment, a small West Village studio with a leaky skylight, faulty heating, and no bathtub. Personality-wise, Paul and Corie couldn’t be more different: he is sensible and reserved, she is impulsive and emotional. Their marriage hits the rocks after six days, when they realize what opposites they are. Can their union survive? Mirroring their plight is the budding romance between Corie’s straight-laced mother, Ethel, and the Bratters’ freewheeling, off-the-wall upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco.
As you can see, this is pretty quaint stuff from a bygone era. The conflict is tame, especially by today’s comedy standards. But Simon has always been a skilled and precise writer, and Barefoot is marked by his trademark strong technique. He proves that good jokes, no matter how simple, never go out of style. Case in point: a running gag involving the five-story climb up the stairs (six, if you count the front stoop) to Paul and Corie’s apartment. Many critics have carped that, in a day and age where such dwellings proliferate (and many people either live in one or know someone who does), the novelty of the top-floor walk-up has worn off. I disagree. Anyone who has ever lived in one of those apartments (I count myself among the many) knows how tiring the walk up can be, especially when you don’t want to do it. No matter how long one lives in such a place, one never quite gets used to the climb. So, when Simon keeps sending his characters stumbling through the front door, out of breath, grateful for rest, but with just enough energy left to toss off a pithy quip about the stairs, it’s funny. Because it’s real. One of Simon’s biggest strengths has always been his ability to plug into humanity’s sense of shared experience, a skill he was just starting to hone in Barefoot.
For the most part, the actors do a good job delivering the laughs. Patrick Wilson is great as Paul, showing a previously unknown talent for physical comedy and general goofiness. He exemplifies perfectly what Corie means when she calls Paul “a stuffed shirt,” and is more than willing to make a fool of himself (and I mean that in the best possible way). Jill Clayburgh is appropriately dignified, as Ethel, when she needs to be, and equally screwball whenever it’s called for. It’s good to see her playing an all-too-rare comic role. Tony Roberts is good as Victor, displaying the fine comic timing he trademarked in several of Woody Allen’s films. But he could stand to take Victor’s inherent flamboyance and outlandishness further in order to set up a bigger dichotomy between himself and Clayburgh’s Ethel. Right now they are not as opposite, in temperament, as written. As Corie, Amanda Peet has the right, bouncy energy, and can be heard clearly, but she often sounds like she’s shouting to be heard over a crowd, resulting in a consistently one-note performance. Hopefully, she can mix in more vocal and emotional color as the run goes on.
There are also lovely contributions from the designers. Derek McLane’s set nails the period cold (including some perfect blue-striped wallpaper), as do Isaac Mizrahi’s splendid costumes, and Ken Travis’s sound design puts the cherry on top with a mix of 1960s pop songs (“Downtown” by Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By,” “I Hear a Symphony” by the Supremes).
Despite everyone’s best efforts, though, this Barefoot feels a little tame. The production frequently feels like it’s stopping to think too much, and lacks that sitcom-type zip that Simon is known for. The blame, I think, lies with director Scott Elliott, who doesn’t seem to be entirely plugged into Simon’s fast and furious wavelength. It’s good to see him trying something a little different, but I’m not sure his sensibility is the right fit for Barefoot. His most successful productions, previously, have been with plays that emphasize behavior and savage humor (i.e. the current revival of Abigail’s Party), and Barefoot doesn’t play to those strengths. His attempts to, seemingly, make it fit that mold rob the play of its comic propulsion. If he’s willing to make some adjustments, even though the show has already opened—picking up the pace here, raising the stakes there—I think Elliott can still bring it up to proper speed.
On the whole, though, Barefoot in the Park is still a pleasant night at the theatre. Any chance to experience the work of Neil Simon is a good one. Fans and students of comedy can still learn a thing or two from his now-patented formula. And, anyone longing for those good, simple jokes of yesteryear will be thoroughly pleased.