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Arizona Repertory Theatre

Kooky 50-year-old 'Barefoot in the Park' shows its age

If the pre-Beatles Camelot culture in Simon’s early work is to be believed, were we really so vapid & narrow-minded?

The University of Arizona’s theatre company’s first offering of the season is Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”

Neil Simon is usually easy money for a theatre troupe – name recognition with a sizable audience and a wealth of popular works, (“The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite,” “Biloxi Blues,” etc.) guarantee a high level of interest.

But in the case of Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “Barefoot in the Park,” the world of the early 1960s feels more like an off-kilter alternate reality than a fond memory. If the pre-Beatles Camelot culture represented here is to be believed, were we really so vapid and narrow-minded? From a postmodern perspective, that modernist world seems more scary surreal than déjà vu.

A kooky newlywed and her lawyer husband

The focus in Simon’s 1963 play is kooky newlywed Corie Bratter and her husband, Paul. After what appears to have been a torrid, whirlwind courtship, winding up in an epic six-night honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel, we meet the couple as they begin to settle down to real life in New York City. Paul is a lawyer with potential, just starting his career.

Corie, on the other hand, is a proto version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Like Laura Petrie or Samantha Stevens, her role is to serve as the catalyst that will save her husband (and herself) from a dreary life of workaholic misery. She will transform him into a psychologically well-rounded man, secure enough in his personhood to (wait for it) run barefoot in the park.

Their shoddy starter apartment ($125 a month) is a character in itself. (Kudos to graduate student Alyssa M. LeBlanc as scenic designer.) The six-floor walkup gives Simon the running gag that everyone enters gasping for breath. The hole in the roof lets in snow. The off-stage bathroom has no tub and the tiny implied bedroom is so cramped that the bed (a single double – Corie’s idea, to encourage intimacy) blocks the closet.

And their wacky neighborhood

Their neighbor is Victor Velasco, and Simon used him as code for exotic foreigner, another favorite '60s trope (played originally on Broadway by an Austrian, Kurt Kaszner). Victor is a character who, though bereft of money, is not without his dapper, worldly charm. To get to his apartment, he must traverse Corie and Paul’s bedroom, out their window and scamper across the roof (he’s a former mountain climber, too). Other neighbors are described, including the quirky same-sex couple downstairs, though no one is sure which sex they are.

Corie’s widowed mom, Mrs. Banks, visits to check on (and judge) her daughter’s situation. Eager to demonstrate her viability as a housewife despite the chaos of move-in, Corie asks her mother to come back for dinner in a few days, when all will be perfect. She then schemes to play matchmaker between Mr. Velasco and Mrs. Bath, to free her mother from her prejudices and limitations, much as she aspires to do with Paul.

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Adding to the comedy are a delivery man and the telephone man, proving that blue collar workers in the 1960s had some pretty snappy repartee in their customer service manuals.

Assessing the cast

Actress Audrey Roberts, as Corie Bratter, is all awkward gestures and nervous energy, a far cry from her role as world-weary actress/courtesan Desiree Armfeldt in last semester’s ART production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”  

Here, unfortunately, the lack of depth that Simon invested in Corie’s character, which may have been perfectly acceptable 50 years ago, makes her like totally annoying, you know? Even Laura Petrie had a dancing career and Samantha, literally, created magic. Corie’s got bupkis, and her two-dimensionality shows, though Roberts has some strong turns, especially as a foil to Victor who serves as both a kindred free spirit and a warning of the dangers of not living sufficiently in the material world.

Roberts’ chemistry with Aaron Arseneault as Paul is sweet, though on the second night of the show, at times a little mechanical, aware of its timing and kinetics, which is the antithesis of the boundless passion and senselessness required of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Arseneault, a junior, does well as an otherwise bright guy starting to realize the chaos that giving into passion may have already gotten him into.

Jamie Grossman steals every scene as Mrs. Banks, an exasperated purse-clutching mother of vague New Yorkish ethnicity. This, too, is a far cry from her own role in “A Little Night Music” as Desiree’s daughter. She again demonstrates acute comedic sense here.

Sterling Boyns is completely over the top as Victor Velasco, all manic arm flapping and broad smiles, as required as the counterpoint to Paul’s uptightness. Sophomores Kasey Caruso and Alec Michael Coles were having great fun as the telephone repair man and delivery man, a valuable learning experience as they trade off their roles over the run.

Directed by UA professor Kevin Black, “Barefoot in the Park” has aged poorly as a comedy. Apart from its fixation on '60s artifacts (a Princess phone, which true to UA’s high production values, actually lights up; references to Duncan Hines cake mix, a Toni perm, Arthur Murray, Polaroid cameras), there is little here to be nostalgic about. Even Mrs. Banks tryst with Victor, so titillatingly risqué back in the day, feels ho-hum.  

Yes, there are more than a few laughs (it is Neil Simon, after all). But the bland pre-feminist construct of Corie, held up as an ideal, rather than making us chuckle whimsically, now forces us to question the real value of those good old days.

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Ed Flores

From left to right: Victor Velasco (Sterling Boyns), Mrs. Banks (Jamie Grossman), and newlyweds Corie (Audrey Roberts) and Paul Bratter (Aaron Arseneault) are ready to leave for a matchmaking dinner that can only be summed up as hilarious in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of 'Barefoot in the Park' by Neil Simon.

If you go

  • What: “Barefoot in the Park,” presented by Arizona Repertory Theatre
  • Where: University of Arizona Marroney Theatre, 1017 E. Olive, near the SE corner of Park Avenue and Speedway Blvd. through Oct. 11
  • When: Evenings, Sept. 23-26, Oct. 1-3, Oct. 9-10 at 7:30 pm; matinees, Sept 27, Oct. 3-4 and Oct. 11 at 1:30 pm.
  • Tickets: Reserved seats, $28 with discounts for seniors, military, and students.  Tickets available at the UA Fine Arts Box Office, 621-1162 and at theatre.arizona.edu.