Barefoot in the Park (Review)

Cincinnati Shakespeare production needs new shoes

For its annual summer fling into lighter fare, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) has elected to reinterpret a Broadway classic: Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, now 45 years old. The result is a thoroughly wrong-headed mishandling of the script — introduced on opening night as (director) "Matt Johnson's production of Barefoot in the Park" — that does significant violence to the material while trampling its sweet, romantic heart, shredding the neat balance of its dialogue and finding no enrichment of its subtext, if indeed enrichment was sought.

There are actual warm, breathing characters in this play. But you'll be hard-pressed to discover them in this all-attitude, no-substance interpretation. For example, newlywed Corie (Lauren Shively) might be just the first of several Simon spins on a stock Broadway character, the adorable nitwit wife, but she can be fetching, even bewitching. Not so when she's played in full-pout mode at screech volume while spinning, dodging and climbing over the furniture. Happily, there's no chandelier or Johnson would have Shively swinging on it.

There's a wry, shimmering wit to such a line as newlywed Paul's reaction to his first encounter with Albanian cooking: "You don't just pick up a fork and dig into a brown salad. You've got to play around with it for a while." But the wit gets frazzled when the line is thrown away at accusation speed.

Johnson has staged the piece as an empty-headed and empty-hearted whirlwind of a farce. But Barefoot in the Park is not Getting Gertie's Garter or Hellzapoppin.

When Barefoot opened in 1963, Simon had evolved well beyond his days as a jokemeister for TV variety shows. He'd had an initial success with Come Blow Your Horn in which the one-liners flow thick and fast but are anchored in character.

OK, so when he was writing Barefoot his art had not yet reached the level of maturity or security he shows in The Gingerbread Lady and Chapter Two, where his jokes emerge from the issues in which his characters are mired. But, damn it, when he wrote this gentle comedy about a bright young couple settling into their first, postage-stamp apartment, he was on his way there, and Barefoot deserves more than attitude. It deserves respect and seems to get little.

Several seriously able actors are woefully wasted. Sherman Fracher (as Corie's mother) and Christopher Guthrie (as a telephone techie) are both nominated for Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEA) for their work in a searing drama, Bug, at New Stage Collective. In this production, Fracher gets stampeded and stomped in the frenzy. Guthrie holds his own against the landslide.

Justin McCombs, who plays Paul, is part of a CEA ensemble nomination for CSC's Midsummer Night's Dream and was wholly effective as Kippy in New Stage Collective's Take Me Out. But like Fracher, he gets thrown under the bus — as do Michael Bath and Bill Hartnett.

Then there's newcomer Shively as Corie in her first leading role with CSC. Who knows what she might have done under different direction? As guided (or goaded) by Johnson, her reading is a combination of whirling dervish and fingernails on a blackboard with none of the redeeming qualities of either.

And the saddest thing is that costumer Heidi Jo Schiemer selected some nicely 1960-ish clothes and designer Will Turbyne built a set that is both workable and witty.

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Aug. 10. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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