STEPHANIE L. RYAN
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Barney Cashman -- successful, middle-aged restaurateur, wed 23 years to the high school sweetheart he married after eight years going steady -- is looking for a romantic adventure. But, as he himself notes, he sure can pick ‘em.
Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," written by Neil Simon, directed by Jessica Stone, and starring festival regular Brooks Ashmanskas as Barney, is set in the late 1960s, in Barney’s mother’s apartment -- a safe place for him to hold his assignations, since "Mother" isn’t home in the afternoons, and far less "sordid" than a hotel room, for the purpose of fulfilling the dream of an afternoon of romantic passion.
Herein lies the trouble; from the moment the doorbell first rings, Barney Cashman is out of his depth in the swirling waters of the sexual revolution. And as with any war, no plan survives contact with the "enemy."
A good part of the fun of the show is watching Ashmanskas, no stranger to the physical side of comedy, as he reacts to the very different women with whom he interacts. Even his entrances, from the schlubby, nervous and blue-suited arrival in the first scene to the dapper, lighthearted dancing appearance at the beginning of the third speak volumes about the character’s mental state. This viewer’s husband likened Ashmanskas’
The ladies of laughter
Susie Essman’s Elaine Navazio is a restaurant patron, Barney’s first invitee, and much, much more interested in whiskey, cigarettes, and getting straight to the action than the painfully nervous Barney is prepared for. He wants romance and adventure; she wants another shot of whiskey, a cigarette, and to get down to business and out the door, thanks very much - she has other men to sleep with, and only so much time, after all. Dialogue crackles as the two approach their meeting from very different starting points.
Leslie Bibb brings a delightful dingyness to her portrayal of bubbly hippie nightclub singer Bobbi Michele, who rarely stops talking long enough to let Barney get a word in edgewise. After his first Thursday afternoon tryst, Barney comes to the second a little more prepared (if only by having brought along a wider range of potables, and some cigarettes), but nothing can really prepare him for the force of nature he has unleashed on his mother’s apartment. As his second attempted adultery spins out of control, an increasingly anxious Barney finds himself doing and trying things he’d never imagined when he lent the woman $20 to hire an accompanist for an audition, and invited her to meet and pay him back. Bibb never lets Bobbi’s frenetic pace drop -- except when she induces the staid Barney to mellow out with her. Hilarity and pop music ensue.
Heidi Schreck’s uptight Jeanette Fisher rounds out the cast, best friend to Barney’s wife, a depressed, uptight housewife with a death-grip on her pocketbook, and an estimate of having enjoyed only 8.2 percent of her life -- with the percentage dropping, the more time she spends in Barney’s mother’s apartment.
It is with Jeanette, depressed at the perceived lack of gentleness and decency in the world and by the rampant infidelity she perceives as its greatest ill, even as she intends to partake in it, that Barney’s frustrations, revelations and true aim come to a head.
For a few very effective minutes, conflict peaks, the comedy comes to a halt, and each character realizes, and reveals, what he or she really wants - which may or may not have to do with the pull-out couch in Mother’s living room.
Simon gives his characters plenty to work with, and while a few references are time-specific, the human interplay is real, the dialogue sparkles and the comic timing and byplay are spot-on. The July 14 matinee audience enjoyed themselves thoroughly, if the laughter is anything to go by.
Scenic designer Alexander Dodge nailed the mid-’60s apartment in New York’s East Thirties, right down to the dish of candy on the coffee table and the baby-blue phone on the secretary in the corner. Costume designer Clint Ramos’ choices give us an instant snapshot of the people wearing them, before they ever open their mouths. Between-scenes projections of ‘60s-era film - on a "curtain" composed of wide-bladed Venetian blinds - evoke times that were, indeed, a-changing, perhaps a little faster than some of the people who lived in them were ready for. A truth that still holds, and makes "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" as relevant today as it was when the play first premiered on Broadway in 1969.
Contact Stephanie Ryan at email@example.com.
"Last of the Red Hot Lovers" is playing on the Nikos Stage at Williams College’s ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, through July 22. It is performed without an intermission, and runs approximately an hour and 45 minutes. For tickets and information call 413-597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.