As has often been true over the last 45 years, Neil Simon has two shows running on Broadway, this time both revivals.
Like "The Odd Couple," which opened last fall with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, "Barefoot in the Park" features a Hollywood star, Amanda Peet, as well as Jill Clayburgh, who is better known for her screen career than her stage work.
As any actor can tell you, nothing is harder than light comedy. Star status, as we saw last fall and see again now, doesn't help.
"Barefoot," which opened more than 40 years ago featuring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, both little-known at the time, is about newlyweds starting life together in a cramped fifth-floor walkup.
The problems begin with Derek McLane's set. With its huge skylight, "cramped" never seems an issue.
Unlike "The Odd Couple," with its simple premise about two men trying to live together, the plot in "Barefoot" feels forced. Its manufactured crises might work as pretexts for sitcom episodes, but they don't seem plausible as part of a play.
Moreover, Scott Elliott's staging invariably seems strained. Take a scene where Patrick Wilson, as a nervous novice lawyer, gets ready for bed. He puts his pajamas on over his underwear.
Do you know anybody who wears pajamas over underwear? Why has Elliott done this? Is it to show us Wilson's muscular legs? We saw them - not to mention considerably more -a few years ago in the musical version of "The Full Monty."
If he wanted to avoid nudity, why not have Wilson undress in the bathroom, with limbs occasionally appearing to emphasize the tight quarters?
Is it to show us the contours of the underwear, designed by Isaac Mizrahi? It's one of many moments in the evening that just seem fake and irritating.
Peet is especially guilty of overdoing everything. As her pushy mother, Clayburgh works overtime, but she at least gets laughs. (If her role had been better cast, the laughs would have come more easily.) Wilson never seems fully comfortable.
The most successful work is Tony Roberts' as an eccentric neighbor. He has the light touch lacking elsewhere.
So does Adam Sietz as an overweight telephone repairman, whose two scenes are the funniest.
Mizrahi's costumes, I'm afraid, sum up what's wrong -they fairly shout at you to admire their cleverness. Comedy should never be so effortful.
Those were the days - back in 1963, when the world and Robert Redford were young.
Come to think of it, maybe 1963 wasn't so great: The Vietnam war was in its early stages, and JFK was assassinated in Dallas.
But Redford was indeed young, and at 26 was making his Broadway breakthrough - it was such a Broadway breakthrough he never came back - in Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park."
Last night "Barefoot" was revived at the Cort Theatre, staged by Scott Elliott and starring a pertly adorable Amanda Peet and a somewhat dour Patrick Wilson.
When it was new, the play came after Simon's own breakthrough in "Come, Blow Your Horn," and a year before his first major work, "The Odd Couple," now also back on Broadway.
So how does "Barefoot" stand up in its current cotton socks? Unlike "The Odd Couple" -which explores much the same yin and yang territory - it's unlikely ever to become an American classic, but it remains entertaining enough.
Filling the shoes first filled by Mike Nichols, Elliott has staged it with much the same manic energy and telling nuance he brought to Mike Leigh's "Abigail's Party" earlier in the season.
Actually, "Abigail's Party" might have done better on Broadway than this "Barefoot," which hasn't exactly dated -even its traces of what might be regarded as anti-feminist a decade or so ago are now probably modishly reeking of postmodern feminism - but its thin texture is now more apparent, what with 40 years of TV sitcoms between us and it.
Simon has long been put down as the king of the one-liners - but, in fact, his characters rarely crack-wise, his laughs are almost always plot-based, character-oriented and even place-placed (remember those flights of stairs).
Here the story is very simple: kooky girl marries stuffed-shirt young lawyer and moves into fearsomely freezing Greenwich Village five-story walk-up. She wants to walk barefoot in the park; he wants to wear his legal briefs to prosperity.
The apparent clash of personalities is exacerbated by his complaints on the absence of a bathtub, the bed fitted into a sort of closet, and the wife's friendship with their upstairs neighbor, an aging bohemian Lothario with more panache than cash.
After a crisis, also involving the neighbor and the wife's nearly impossibly prim and widowed mother, the play ends happily. Love conquers all, even irreconcilable differences that will certainly land the happy couple into the divorce court two or three years after the play's final curtain.
Derek McLane has filled the play with '60s fashion nostalgia, complete with striped wallpaper, conical lampshades and square furniture for people to perch on, and Isaac Mizrahi has given the same neat backward glance to the costumes.
Peet certainly has the right ditsy manner, which she plays on like a harpsichord, but also a spunky brightness that suggests a character that won't make her mannerisms her profession.
Wilson, on the other hand, is so downbeat as the bright, bushy-tailed young lawyer that even when he becomes upbeat, you wonder how the pair even met, let alone married.
In the original pairing of Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, the basic attraction between them was so strong, a dozen schoolchildren could have come in and made chemistry sets out of it.
Now the most endearing characters are Jill Clayburgh, as Peet's agreeably befuddled mother, and Tony Roberts, as the sophisticated, impecunious, warm-and-cuddly paper-tiger neighbor upstairs.
In the original, the elegant Roberts eventually took over the Redford role during the show's four-year run. He and the sprightly Clayburgh are perfectly at home in Simon's world.
The mistakes begin with the wallpaper. When the curtain rises on the torturous new revival of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," the play's eager newlywed heroine (portrayed by Amanda Peet) is discovered applying, with laborious comic inefficiency, hypnotically striped paper to the walls of her first apartment. Not to put a damper on a young bride's early adventures in decorating, but instead of gluing on wallpaper, shouldn't she be slapping on paint? Then at least the audience would have the diversion of watching it dry.
Certainly, theatergoers deserve some form of incidental relief from the parching desert of a production that opened last night at the Colt Theater. Mr. Simon's 1963 comedy, his first Broadway smash, was a valentine to his wife Joan and to the joyful tribulations of being young, untried and uninhibited in the big city. Yet for a work that celebrates the liberating force of spontaneity, this version doesn't have one scene that feels organic, let alone impromptu.
The quip-packed dialogue that is Mr. Simon's signature registers here with the animation and full-bodiedness of projected supertitles. As the current Broadway revival of "The Odd Couple" indicates, early Neil Simon retains its original freshness about as well as sushi. But as miscast and uneasy as this season's "Odd Couple" is, it at least has the momentum that comes from honoring the Ping-Pong rhythms of bouncing zingers. "Barefoot" progresses with the stiff-legged, robotic gait of Boris Karloff as the Mummy.
Given the vitality of the talents involved here, it may seem puzzling that this "Barefoot" should be so lacking in the sap of life. Its director, Scott Elliott, has established himself in the past decade as an inspired rejuvenator of post-mid-20th-century period pieces (including the recent "Hurlyburly" and "Abigail's Party"). Ms. Peet is a rising film star who was seen to fine advantage last year in the Public Theater's production of Neil LaBute's "This Is How It Goes." Patrick Wilson has been wonderfully appealing both onstage ("The Full Monty") and on television ("Angels in America"), while Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts arrive in a cloud of happy associations with now-classic films, like "An Unmarried Woman" (Ms. Clayburgh) and a clutch of top-drawer Woody Allen movies (Mr. Roberts).
Yet if you look at these folks' credentials and personas more closely, you'll see that most of them are flagrantly mismatched with their roles, including, by the way, Mr. Elliott. But let's start - though I'm loath to -with Ms. Peet, since her character, Corie Bratter, is the soul of the play.
Originated on Broadway by the young (and by all accounts irresistible) Elizabeth Ashley, and on film in 1967 by an improbably kittenish Jane Fonda, Corie is the heir to the screwball heroines of the 1930's -logically illogical, life-intoxicated women (played by the likes of Colbert, Lombard and Katharine Hepburn) who taught uptight men to get down and cut loose. Mr. Simon was, in fact, resuscitating a type that had mostly disappeared in the 40's and 50's and establishing a mold for the countercultural blithe spirits of the 60's and 70's that Goldie Hawn would make a career of.
Not that Corie is a revolutionary. She is proud to be Mrs. Paul Bratter, and her first desire is to make her new hubby (Mr. Wilson), a fledgling lawyer, a happy home. Yet she is a wild thing, too, whose idea of a good time is to get drunk and ring all the neighbors' doorbells, sample crazy foreign food and, yes, run barefoot in the park in the dead of winter. As her mother, Mrs. Banks (Ms. Clayburgh), a timid suburban widow, tells her: "You're impulsive. You jump into life."
Ms. Peet, to put it bluntly, is no jumper. She exudes the bristly, defensive caution of a pretty woman used to fending off the advances of creeps. And her range of vocal and facial expressiveness is pretty much confined to, at most, two lines of a musical staff. In the right part, she can work subtle wonders within these limitations. But her Corie seems as madcap as Martha Stewart in a business meeting. You can sense that she's trying, really hard, to be funny and freewheeling, but it hurts her. Us, too.
This doesn't give Mr. Wilson's priggish Paul, who must be seduced by Corie into shedding his buttoned-down ways, much to work with. "Is that supposed to be funny?" he asks Corie, after she delivers a typically Simonian put-down. "No, it was supposed to be nasty," she answers. "It just came out funny." But in truth, there is no appreciable difference between this Corie's being funny and being nasty; there's not even much difference between her hysterically sad and hysterically happy.
Even playing opposite an emotional vacuum, Mr. Wilson, in the role created on stage and screen by Robert Redford, manages some appealing bits of comic business, as the fastidious Paul deals with the broken-down obstacle course that is his Greenwich Village apartment. But there's an artificiality in his line readings and gestures, however charming, that suggests that he developed them in front of a mirror. You can't blame him.
Ms. Clayburgh has a winning way with dialogue that can make synthetic one-liners sound like filigree epigrams. Trim and dazzlingly blond, she is a glamorous eyeful in Isaac Mizrahi's rich dowager costumes. Then again, her character is supposed to be a shy, delicate frump in need of sexual awakening. Nothing that is said about Mrs. Banks tracks with what we see of her here.
The role of the Bohemian womanizer next door is one Mr. Roberts could glide through on automatic pilot. He does. Like the rest of the cast, he has been painstakingly outfitted by Mr. Mizrahi in clothing that screams, "It's the 1960’s, folks." (In Mr. Roberts's case, this means Birkenstocks and a brocade Nehru jacket.)
This is part and parcel of Mr. Elliott's shtick; he has always been big on time-capsule details. His "Barefoot" comes equipped with a vintage (and sometimes anachronistic) soundtrack that ranges from Petula Clark singing "Downtown" to the Byrds' cover of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" And by the second scene, after Corie has finished decorating, Derek McLane's village-aerie walk-up apartment set could have been ripped from the pages of an early-1960's Better Homes and Gardens.
Is this really what Corie, the raging individualist, would come up with? Perhaps Mr. Elliott is trying to suggest that Corie is, after all, her mother's daughter, trapped in the conventions she grew up with. But "Barefoot in the Park" does not stand up to such psychological parsing. For it to work at all, it has to float without flinching on the surface of its wide-eyed, good-willed romanticism.
Only one of the performers here seems to enter fully and happily into that spirit. His name is Adam Sietz, and he has a small role as a wisecracking but empathetic telephone installer. He is onstage for a total of perhaps 10 minutes. And those are the only minutes in which this show exhales the breath of life.
There's something quaintly endearing about Corie Bratter, the eager young wife in the new Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park (* * out of four). Until she opens her mouth, that is.
Forty-three years after Neil Simon's comedy about newlyweds settling into their first apartment made its debut, it should be refreshing to meet a grown woman who acts inappropriately girlish by instinct rather than affectation.
Certainly, a twenty-something, pre-feminist child-woman whose only concerns are her husband and home seems less objectionable in theory than a thirty- or forty-something, post-feminist career woman whose only concerns are designers and dating.
Alas, time has not been kind to Mrs. Bratter or to the other moth-eaten creatures trotted out in this restaging of Simon's pre-cultural revolution chestnut, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre. Director Scott Elliott and his starry, supple cast try admirably, but they can't quite breathe life into a period piece that must have struck some people as dated even four decades ago.
One feels especially for the lovely and talented Amanda Peet. Like Elizabeth Ashley and Jane Fonda, who respectively introduced Corie on stage and screen, Peet has proved her mettle playing more sophisticated and substantial women. But having come of age in a time when gals like Corie no longer roamed the earth -or at least the Upper West Side - the younger actress seems to have no reference point for this needy, nattering baby doll who can't understand why her lawyer spouse would have to work the night before his first court appearance.
Other characters evoke suburban and urban stereotypes as they might be drawn by an old Catskills comedian. Corie's recently widowed mother, played by Jill Clayburgh with a brave face and redeeming wit, pops in from New Jersey and is forever swallowing pink pills. One of the neighbors, played by Tony Roberts with similar pluck, is the sort of exotic city dweller who wears an ascot and eats in Albanian restaurants - in Staten Island, yet!
Corie's husband, Paul, is the squarest peg in the bunch, and the winning Patrick Wilson brings the right self-effacing charm. A number of his jokes, and everyone else's, allude to the five-flight climb to the Bratters' love nest. "You should have rested," Paul tells his mother-in-law after one trek. "I did," she counters. "but there were always more stairs."
If you find such lines hilarious, Barefoot in the Park might be worth your time. Otherwise, you're better off watching an old sitcom. Might I suggest The Odd Couple? It's considerably funnier.
Strike two. While a case could conceivably be made for Neil Simon's early comedies as American classics, this season's Broadway revivals are doing little to support that claim.
First came a starry retread of "The Odd Couple" that sapped the heart of the mismatched-buddy battle. NOW, in "Barefoot in the Park," director Scott Elliott sends his actors scurrying about the stage in a maddeningly busy attempt to locate their characters -while neglecting the nuts-and-bolts mechanics that might allow this comedy of a young couple's post-honeymoon discord to build to a satisfying resolution.
Premiered in 1963 in a Mike Nichols staging starring Elizabeth Ashley, Robert Redford, Mildred Nahvick and Kurt Kasznar, the comedy ran almost four years on Broadway. Coming at a time when 1950s morality was making way for a more liberal climate, particularly in the sexual-politics arena, it's easy to imagine the play seeming quite a frisky, funny take on the marriage game back then.
But while the 1967 Gene Saks movie holds up reasonably well as a cute comic romp firmly rooted in its era, Elliott's revisitation of the play exposes how dated the writing is. It scorns almost like an affront to the recently departed Betty Friedan's legacy when Jill Clayburgh's upscale suburban matron. Mrs. Banks dispenses this advice to her daughter Corie: “You've got to give up a little of you for him. Make him feel important. And if you can do that, you'll have a happy and wonderful marriage."
But the comedy's retrograde point of view is not the main problem here. In his productions for the New Group, of which he is founding artistic director. Elliott has shown an inclination to scratch beneath the talky surface of period pieces to find emotional depths. Most recently in “Hurlyburly” and "Abigail's Party." In this frothy comedy, that approach feels inappropriate and yields scant rewards.
As newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter, Amanda Peet and Patrick Wilson expend an inordinate amount of energy emphatically defining their characters -- she's a loosey-goosey, fun-loving gal, brimming with enthusiasm and vitality; he's a stuffed-shirt attorney who favors order and dependability. What they neglect to do is to make the couple likable or interesting.
Wilson works hard at it, and he has some nuance and deft timing on his side, but he's not naturally starchy enough to make his eventual humanization register. Peet's forced ebullience and hyperactivity are grating; her idea of projecting is to shout every line of dialogue.
Six days after their wedding, Corie and Paul move into a tiny Greenwich Village apartment -- or at least that's what everyone keeps saying. Derek McLane's spacious set, with its chic '60s-modern decor, in fact doesn't look half bad. OK, so it's a fifth-floor walk-up with a cramped bedroom and no bathtub, but at $125 a month and with that giant skylight, it's hard to sympathize with all the whining about the place's inadequacies.
Nor is it easy to care much when incompatibility rears its head soon after the Bratters set up house. Did the bride and groom know nothing about each other before they were married?
Despite a tiresome amount of screaming and yelling, their problems never seem tangible enough to pose a real threat to the fledgling marriage. Divorce is mentioned and bags are packed, but Corie and Paul are clearly crazy about each other, so it's only a matter of time – almost 2 1/2 long hours -- before they learn that living and loving requires compromise and mutual understanding.
Simon's one-liners here lack the sparkle of his finest work. In the absence of more dynamic verbal comedy, Elliott cranks up the broadly played physical shtick, which only slows down the play. There's a surfeit of fussy business with wallpapering mess, tricky light switches, a track-jumping record player, inedible hors d’oeuvres, the mixing and then the tasting of Corie's lethally strong martinis, etc. Even the running joke of Corie leaping into Paul's arms when he breathlessly reaches the door wears thin.
The chief redeeming factor in this hopelessly quaint, featherweight sitcom is Clayburgh. Cast against type as Corie's slightly daffy widowed mother, the actress is probably nobody's idea of an Ethel and totally departs from the dithery stamp put on the character by the incomparable Natwick. Yet Clayburgh makes it work with her frazzled warmth and irresistible double takes. She's also impeccably turned out in Isaac Mizrahi's coolly stylish costumes.
As the Bratters' upstairs neighbor, the ingratiating bohemian Victor Velasco, Tony Roberts (who replaced Redford as Paul for a year in the original Broadway run) is merely adequate.
But when Victor is thrown together with Ethel Banks after an ouzo-sodden night in a Greek restaurant, it provides the production's most affecting, human moments. Clayburgh suddenly becomes-girlish and giddy with the discovery that there might be a more exciting alternative to Toni home perms, TV and a solitary glass of scotch.
With effortless grace and class, she injects something into the play that's missing from the bland couple center stage: romance.