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Last of the Red Hot Lovers
By Elyse Sommer
While plenty of men — and women— jumped on the sexual revolution bandwagon, and leaving long-term spouses for either temporary affairs or even new marriages, Simon used this set up for Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Instead of allowing his middle-aged malcontent, Barney Cashman, to live up to being the red hot lover of the title, he had him hilariously try and fail three times, with each woman proving that his ineptitude as even a mildly hot philanderer.
Barney's comic mis-philandering put Neil Simon's name on a Broadway marquee for the third time in 1969 (the other two: Plaza Suite and the musical Promises, Promises, for which he wrote the book). It ran for 706 performances, was made into a movie two years later and has enjoyed numerous regional revivals though it's not the title that tops any list of Simon's biggest hits. Yet it's the play that Jessica Stone, who made such a terrific directing debut with A Funny Thing Happened to Me On the Way to the Forum, chose to introduce Williamstown Theatre Festival theater goers to Neil Simon's knack for comedies strongly flavored with poignancy and give four actors the gift of roles rich in dialogue demanding perfect timing and opportunities to do physical comedy and also dig into their characters' deeper emotions.
As this early Simon work holds up surprisingly well, so Stone confirms her skills as a director. With just four actors, the production is a perfect fit for WTF's intimate Nikos Stage (not a bad seat in the house), enabling the actors to tap into the humor and despair Simon builds into the spaces between his witty dialogue.
Given that the three women who Barney arranges to rendezvous with at his mother's Manhattan apartment while she's on her once a week stint as a hospital volunteer, appear in just one of the play's three acts, this is pretty much a star vehicle for the actor portraying the middle-aged fish restaurant manager seeking an afternoon of passion to provide him with a memory to sustain him for the rest of his nice but humdrum life. Brooks Ashmanskas, a Williamstown regular, certainly gives a stellar performance as the nervous nebbishy but essentially gentle and decent Barney whose three assignations all end without mom's convertible couch lead to a mission accomplished.
It takes just a few minutes with Ashmanskas's Barney for us to know him, like him and look forward to what Mr. Simon has cooked up to keep his wannabe philandering sizzle with more laughter than passion. Ashmanskas's keeps up his remarkable physical comedy throughout the three acts. Though the three female cast members have only a single act to reveal how they fit into this story of people coping with life and love in the late '60s, the doomed to disappoint dates — Susie Essman, Leslie Bibb and Heidi Schreck —manage to create three hilariously vivid portraits of their own.
First to ring the doorbell as Barney nervously pulls a bottle of scotch and glasses from a shopping bag is the acerbic Elaine Navazio (Essman), a patron at Barney's restaurant. It's hard to top this first act of non-seduction. Essman's acid-tongued, seasoned adulteress who's more than willing to get what she came for over with, especially once she finds out that this is Mom Cashman's pad and that they have only a two-hour window of opportunity.
It's hard to top the biting wit of the point counterpoint of the booze and alcohol consuming Elaine's business-like approach to sex and Barney's let's get acquainted first approach. There's also bound to be something of a dramatic letdown as it's clear that the next two acts will be variations of the Barney/Elaine encounter. Unless you like your comedy to go way over the top, this is likely to apply most to the second act, though Leslie Bibb is a delectable looking and able scene chewer as Bobbi Michele, a ditzy actress Barney met in the park who introduces him to pot smoking,
The more poignant underpinnings of the first act are restored full force in the final variation of Barney's unrealized philandering with the arrival of Heidi Schreck as Jeannette Fisher, the best friend of Barney's never seen wife. Everything about Jeanette, from her coiffure to the Queen Elizabeth style handbag too narrow to hold more than a tissue and a compact, screams uptight propriety — though that didn't keep her from propositioning Barney and so this final tryst brings the play's poignant elements to the forefront. That's not to say that Barney's failure as a "red hot lover" ends up as a Greek tragedy.
Even in his most serious later plays, like the Pulitzer Prize winning Lost in Yonkers, Mr. Simon never abandons his roots as a comic writer. And that means while neither hot to trot Elaine, kooky Bobby or bitter and prudish Jeannette can give Barney the respite from mid-life boredom he yearns for, don't be surprised if Simon does point him to a happy ending.
Besides a dream cast to make her choice of this play as smart as Barney Cashman's choice of women to dally with on his mother's convertible couch are not, Stone has an outstanding design team to execute her vision of how her production should look. Clint Ramos's period and character defining costumes (including Barney's never quite smart enough outfits for his Winter, Summer and Fall assignations) are wonderfully on the mark. Alexander Dodge's apartment setting. Stone's clever concept for giving us an interesting glimpse of the play's time frame and Barney's background, makes for ingeniously fluid and entertaining transitions between the three acts thanks to Aaron Rhyne's projections.
While Last of the Red Hot Lovers is almost as old as Barney Cashman, there's nothing old and dated about his urge to spice up his life while he can.
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