THEATER REVIEW: Neil Simon's “Barefoot In The Park” captures right mood

Neil Simon, the wonder boy of the mid-20th century comedy, has done it all. A writer for two wildly popular ’50s TV shows – Sid Caesar’s late, lamented “Your Show Of Shows” and Phil Silvers’ “Sergeant Bilko” – he went on to conquer Broadway, where he once had four shows playing simultaneously.

He’s also written for film, receiving four Academy Award nominations for screenplays, both adaptations of his own plays and original works.

He hasn’t written any plays in the past five years, but now Moonlight Stage Productions brings back the king of one-liners’ first smash hit,
“Barefoot In The Park,” for a run through Feb. 6 at the Avo Playhouse. Jason Heil directs.

“Barefoot In The Park” explores the first few days of the post-honeymoon period for newly minted attorney Paul (Jason Maddy) and bride Corie Bratter (Jessica John), as they move into the fifth-floor walkup of a crumbling 48th Street brownstone in New York City.

Corie is young, pretty, impulsive and exhaustingly upbeat, and is also the only one who coos about the potential of this empty room with its nonfunctioning heat, hole in the skylight and imperfectly painted mint green walls.

Paul is conservative, a bit of a stuffed shirt (hey, he’s a lawyer) who thinks things ought to be done the proper way. He and Corie make an odd couple (though perhaps not as odd as that other Simon pair).

As she stands basking in the afterglow of the honeymoon week at the Plaza Hotel and pondering furniture arrangement (and hoping for immediate delivery), Telephone Man Harry Pepper (a very funny Peter Pavone) staggers in, gasping for breath and near collapse from the climb, setting up the running gag of the show.

Corie’s plans begin to go awry when Paul is the next arrival – also gasping, and beating the furniture delivery men. Worse still, Corie’s mother, Mrs. Banks (Dagmar Krause Fields), “drops in,” trying desperately to see what Corie sees in the place (after she recovers from the climb). Mrs. Banks is a widow living alone “way out in New Jersey” for whom Corie decides to find a love interest.

Who should walk in but Victor Velasco (Eric Poppick), the flamboyant old smoothie who lives in the attic, full of Old World charm and manipulation. Victor (who has been known to wear a kimono or beret – or both) is also known as “the Bluebeard of 48th Street.”

Simon’s early plays are prisoners of their time and of Simon’s development phase. “Barefoot In The Park,” like others written in the ’60s, trades on one-liners, sight gags and predictable plots, and though the characters in “Barefoot” are somewhat more realistic than those in “Come Blow Your Horn,” it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that plot and characters only exist as a framework for the jokes. (Who could take seriously a bride who considers leaving her husband because he won’t walk barefoot in the park in the dead of winter?)

Still, John’s Corie is adorable if empty-headed, Maddy a convincing bore as Paul, Poppick a hoot as Velasco, Fields engaging as Mrs. Banks. Pavone’s Telephone Man is a scream, as is the Delivery Man, played in rotation by three actors (it must be that climb). We saw Howard Bickle.
N. Dixon Fish’s set and the tech work deserve praise as well.

“Barefoot In The Park” isn’t great theater, but it makes for a pleasant evening.

The details

“Barefoot In The Park” plays through Feb. 6 at Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St. in Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.