Arts & Events
CONTRA COSTA COMMUNITY THEATRE (CCCT) is a neat little theater with a very wide stage tucked back in the residential section of El Cerrito several blocks off San Pablo. I’ve not reviewed there before, but a theatre colleague suggested the current play, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. There is a small outbreak of Neil Simon going around the community theatres, and I am trying to build up an immunity by sampling them all.
Barefoot at CCCT is directed by Dennis Markham and stars a couple of good actors Joel Roster and Ginny Wehrmeister.
Ms. Wehrmeister is the kind of pretty that makes one smile, turn one’s head at an angle and sigh. She is naturally and believably animated and bubbly in the demeanor of many pre-feminist women. The truth of her movements convey a bursting enthusiasm for life as newlywed Corie with a new apartment in Manhattan—though is it a five-floor, elevator-less walk-up. She is the very embodiment of the joy of a new life, with wedding presents still arriving, awaiting the new furniture, with a flood of hormones thrown in from her 6-day honeymoon and her presumable introduction to the joys of the marriage bed. She is attired in a low-cut top, and her ample décolletage, while I don’t remember it as a 60’s fashion, certainly does support her conveyed hopes for continued “physical, spiritual, sexual” joy on the first night in their new apartment, and puts the audience in the right frame of mind.
Joel Roster plays the new groom Paul, a hopeful young lawyer, whose mind is on work like men in the 1960’s. Mr. Roster has natural abilities with a penchant for irony, dark masculine good looks, and the two touch one another with the ease of people who have just spent six days in bed together.
It starts with great good energy and a couple of winning cameos. They do seem to capture the Zeitgeist of NYC in the early ‘60’s (which I remember well).
The first conflicting obstacle in the play is the five flights of stairs. Corie is the only one who seems to be able to bound up the stairs without getting winded. But then nearly every man smoked in the ‘60’s. Thus, entrances are made in varying degrees of panting exhaustion.
Danny Cozart plays the telephone installation guy. He is just New York enough, with enough wryness and good humor, dispensing a little advice to the bride and groom. Our Bell Telephone (remember them?) man’s name is Harry Pepper: funny names and words with k’s and p’s are a touchstone of “Doc” Simon plays, an inheritance from Borscht belt humor.
The funniest moment in the play is a cameo without words by the much-admired Henry Perkins as the gift-delivery guy. He throws himself—and the packages--into the comic asthmatic exhaustion from the climb, to one of the few big laughs of the evening.
A few laughs however are not enough for an evening of comedy. Director Dennis Markham chose the play because, “It's a really fun show…that is difficult to put on…they really are people not just characters -- or caricatures.“ But there is nothing new brought to it, no abiding truth or revelation, no memorable character portrayals. It is half-century old humor, played with the gusto and cheerfulness of musical theater without anything really at stake. While truth in acting Shakespeare has evolved, playing Simon hasn’t, at least not here.
Under Markham’s direction, it becomes a “style” of witty repartee with repetition of beats and intentions down to the inflection of each line. Mr. Roster’s good-natured skepticism ends most lines with a down-turn in pitch to punctuate the irony; Ms. Wehrmeister repeats a rising inflection ending with a charming squeal. The actors keep it coming fast and furious without a moment taken for decision or recognition. It’s played like farce; however without an illicit lover lurking behind door number three which is the suspense and conflict in farce. Here there doesn’t seem to be anything really at risk. Though the couple’s first quarrel devolves into childish threats of divorce--which does set up one of the best drunk acts ever by Roster—we never really fear that things might actually go South. The tempos and rhythms remain frenetic, thus true conflict or real pain is not given a chance to register to refresh our mood so that we can laugh again.
Director Markham is adept at moving actors around the center and left parts of this ungainly wide stage. Stage right is limited to warming oneself quickly by the fireplace against the bone-chilling February. There is no expected armchair in front of the fireplace which seemed odd, and certainly does not invite any staging in that deserted portion. The set decoration has garishly painted orange walls with jarringly grotesque flat Kelly-green tables and secondhand-store furniture, more appropriate to a college student’s digs than middle-class newlyweds. The set design by Henry Perkins provides different levels which vary the stage picture and some built-in laughs in the reveal through the skylight. In the lighting by Joe D’Emilio everyone is brightly lit, which is good for a comedy, but it does not change much according to mood.
Shay Oglesby-Smith plays mother of the bride, Ethel. She is true in her acting, and can deliver one of the few viable laugh lines deadpan enough to get a real laugh in a house of snickers, like “Make him feel important. If you do that, you'll have a happy and wonderful marriage - like two out of every ten couples.” She plays the character as self-effacing and supportive, which does not seem to add much conflict, though the character seems to be written that way.
Marcus Klinger who played Mother Edna in “Hairspray” in which he was outstanding, brings a boisterous bonhomie to the role of the bon vivant Mr. Velasco, which belies his characterization as a ladies’ man. There is no seductive charm about him, and his age makeup is ill-applied and resembles the slap-dash nature of his character work.
Some thoughts on the chronic nature of community theatre Neil Simon-itis
BAREFOOT opened on Broadway one month before America lost her innocence in Dallas.
It was one week after the British press coined the term “Beatlemania” and a half year before they invaded the US. We were on the cusp of change with the March on Washington, and Bob Dylan’s hit “Blowin’ in the Wind,” two million women had discovered The Pill, but Doc was writing comedy for the middle class even back then.
Simon wrote plays that spoke to his time before the Worldwide Cultural and Sexual Revolution to come in the next decade, when America was at its ascendancy, when everybody seemed to have a job, and when there was new hope for justice and equality. Perhaps it is a longing for those good old days that still draws the older set to see it one more time.
To give you an inkling of the difference in humor then and now, you can sample the dated laugh lines from BAREFOOT plays by clicking on http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061385/quotes
A fellow critic recently referred to Neil Simon as essentially a television writer, and, it can seem like watching a rerun of “The Odd Couple.” (Indeed, “Barefoot in the Park” was the other Simon TV series aired in 1970.) You may remember this play via the 1967 film with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.
The ticket-buying public has weighed in:
- Forty nine years ago, a young Mike Nichols won the Tony for directing a very young Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in the premier of this play which ran for six years.
- Six years ago, there was a revival run for a short three months on Broadway with Amanda Peet in the lead.
- Three years ago, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” despite positive critical reviews, closed six days after opening, and “Broadway Bound” was cancelled before it opened.
But if I were king, new truths to the playing of Simon’s art would be found, else he would be shelved for a decade.
Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon
Directed by Dennis Markham
Through March 4th
Contra Costa Civic Theatre (CCCT)
951 Pomona Avenue (at Moeser), El Cerrito
www.ccct.org / 510-524-9132
With: Danny Cozart, Marcus Klinger, Shay Oglesby-Smith, Henry Perkins, Joel Roster, and Ginny Wehrmeister.
Set designed and built by Henry Perkins, lighting design by Joe D’Emilio, sound by Jeremy Katz, costumes Lisa Danz, props by Derrick Silva. Producer Maureen Ray, stage manager Henry Perkins.