Last of the Red Hot Lovers is funny. I wasn't sure it would be. It premiered in 1969. Playwright Neil Simon has received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer, and at one time, had four successful plays running on Broadway in a single season, but that was decades ago. Does the work hold up?
It does. The writing is crisp and the dialogue is fresh and unexpected. While artfully crafted, one can imagine two people actually having the conversations voiced by Barney Cashman (David Mason) and his woman du jour. It's a period piece, vintage 1969, with a set that features a New York City apartment furnished of the era, including that giveaway rotary dial phone. Petula Clark sings an intro into Act 2. There are bellbottomed pants.
Of course the title is ironic. Barney Cashman is as staid as a Buick, a perpetually blue-suited middle-aged owner of a seafood restaurant. He married his high school sweetheart and his life is "nice." Therein lies the problem. Barney wants something else. He is not greedy, just looking for a single afternoon that could provide him with memories upon which to dine into his dotage.
What could go wrong? Barney, as he later admits, really does not know "how to pick 'em." The play begins with him furtively making his way into his mother's empty apartment, channeling Felix Unger as he neurotically arranges the environs for his first extramarital affair. Elaine (Deb Radloff) arrives, curvy and to the point. Radloff delivers her lines with power and wit. She is not, to say the least, what Barney expected. Act 2 picks up a few months later--same place, same goofy plan. Barney welcomes Bobbi (Jenni Putney), a young aspiring actress he had met in the park. Putney may have the most fun-charged role of the play. Bobbi is wacko, and Putney knows how to portray her as she pings through staccato monologues, spouting off about a horny cabdriver and abundant conspiracy theories. Woman Number 3 is Jeannette (Danielle Slavick), practically catatonic, clutching her purse for protection as if she has had a lifetime of practice at it. Barney and Jeannette's dialogue is the most searing, played less for laughs, as they struggle to name three decent people they know.
This production of Red Hot belongs to David Mason. On stage throughout, he is the personification of the everyman best described in a famous quote from the era by Marilyn Quayle (wife of Vice President Dan Quayle), when she said of the 1960s, "Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft." Barney Cashman is a nebbish on the outside of the 1960s cultural revolution who is wondering himself whether he ought to dip his toe in the changing waters around him. Mason's physicality--his careful movements, his perma-hunched shoulders, his earnest look--bring his character to life before he delivers a single word of dialogue.
David Mason as Barney and Danielle Slavick as Jeannette, a world-class purse clutcher
It is the genius of Simon and the acting ability of Mason that pull off the evening's biggest surprise: Barney Cashman is not a cartoon character. He is, as Simon's characters have been described, an "imperfect, unheroic figure who is at heart a decent human being." He is vulnerable in ways that we connect to, never better portrayed than in those very few seconds when Mason "rehearses" his greeting to his expected visitors by pantomiming his gesture of welcome.
Despite it being written and set in the 1960s, Simon's piece is one with a conservative message about marital fidelity that may or may not play as well in the new millineum. (Apparently this is a recurring theme in Simon's work even though he himself was married 5 times.) Cashman's wondering, along with Peggy Lee, if "that's all there is, "and how quests for individual fulfillment may battle with being a "decent, gentle and loving person" are timeless themes.
Artistic Director Carol Dunne said that Last of the Red Hot Lovers was chosen this season as a kind of bookend to Northern Stage's earlier production of Living Together, part of Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy, The Norman Conquests. In fact, Simon and Ayckbourn are often compared as American and British counterparts of the theater. Simon's is the better play. Norman was rather loathsome. Barney is someone you find yourself rooting, and hoping, for.
Northern Stage's Last of the Red Hot Lovers runs through March 5, 2017 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction VT. For tickets, contact them at http://northernstage.org or call the box office at 802-296-7000.
Photographs by Rob Strong. Some quoted material from Wikipedia.
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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge