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Theater Review: “Last of the Red Hot Lovers”

L-R Katie Karel, Noelle Marion, Phil Johnson & Sandy Campbell
Photo credit:
Aaron Rumley

Imagine how depressing it must be to join a revolution and find you’re a flop at it.

Poor old 47-year-old restaurateur Barney Cashman has lived a “nice” if unexciting life with his nice if unexciting wife. Now he wants to join the sexual revolution and sow a few wild oats before it’s too late. So he invites a series of inappropriate women to an afternoon tryst each – in his mother’s New York apartment.

This is the setup for Neil Simon’s 1969 “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” a creaky but often still funny look at the preoccupations of the middle-aged American male of that era. It plays through Oct. 8 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The production benefits from Phil Johnson’s hilarious turn as Barney, the wannabe philanderer who seems to be unclear on the concept, insisting that he’s looking for “something beautiful, something decent.” This role requires physical comedy and a large stash of facial expressions, both of which are Johnson strengths.

He first welcomes serious sexpot Elaine Navazio (Katie Karel), who likes cigarettes, whiskey, and other women’s husbands. Mostly right now, she wants a cigarette, and no amount of liquor will substitute.

Elaine is so disturbingly matter-of-fact about the promised affair that Barney finally asks, “Is it possible you really are as cold as you sound?”

“I have to use gloves to take off my underwear,” she quips.

Simon is noted (and loved) for this kind of breezy banter. 

The next candidate is 27-year-old blonde actress/bimbo Bobbi, who shows up in a very short, poufy-skirted dress, complaining about the heat. Spotting the a/c vent in the wall, she attempts the Marilyn Monroe stance – except that she has to stoop in front of the grate instead of standing on top of it. Johnson’s expression is priceless.

It goes on in this vein, and soon it’s clear that Bobbi (Noelle Marion) is a seriously ditzy, pot-smoking motormouth who mostly wants to talk about her latest audition and her peculiar roommate. Marion plays the part to the hilt, and she and Johnson wring the most out of Barney’s introduction to marijuana.

Last up is Jeanette (Sandy Campbell), a spectacularly bad choice for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that she’s Barney’s wife’s best friend. 

Jeanette brings the dark cloud of depression in the door, and an unholy attachment to the purse she clutches desperately.  But at least they have some history, and it’s Jeanette who provides the poignancy Simon often inserts into his comedies with her question, “How much of your life do you actually enjoy?” (She calculates her number as 8.2%.)

All three women are excellent, and fine foils for Johnson. 

Kudos to Marty Burnett, for a set that looks like the worst of the late ’60’s, and to Elisa Benzoni for the fine period costumes.

This is not Simon’s best play, but it offers some laughs (especially from men, if the opening night audience is any indication) and makes a pleasant night out.

The details

“Last of the Red Hot Lovers” plays through Oct. 8, 2017, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org