Barefoot in the Park
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
July 12, 2009
Entering the Manhattan Theatre Source theatre space is always an adventure. One can never be sure just what it will be transformed into next. This time Ground Up Productions has made sure we enter a modest New York City apartment where newlywed Corie Bratter is preparing for her husband of six whole days, Paul, to arrive. It is the 1960s and this is absolutely a period piece. Costumes by Stacey Berman take us back in time and the props and set are perfectly conceived. With the setting in order and Travis McHale's natural and appropriate lighting design, the mood is set nicely for what is sure to be a light and romantic play Neil Simon.
The play is well cast with Kate Middleton's Corie driving the plot. She is a very sunny if scattered young lady who wants to make the best of everything and live life to the fullest. This is of course in direct opposition to her husband Paul, beautifully portrayed by Guy Olivieri, who is the breadwinner, the level head and the true adult in the relationship.
Ultimately, that is what this play is about—opposites. Letting a little bit of the people you love's personalities sink into the person you are so that we can all find balance. This theme is also demonstrated in the relationship that Corie's mother, Mrs. Banks, has with the eccentric upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco. Amelia White's portrayal of Mrs. Banks is truly the standout performance of the show. She has subtly created a woman who is aging faster than her years. Conservative and wrapped up in the things she is supposed to do rather than what might be fun. She doesn't judge herself, she knows herself, and a lesser actress might have made her a caricature rather than a real woman. The fountain of eternal youth that is Victor Velasco is charmingly played by Eric Purcell. The two are an excellent contrast to one another and stole the show for me.
Director Lon Bumgarner does not fail to deliver what is promised in the very first moments of the play. We are given a simple, light and dated comedy that skims over the top of anything passionate or real. It is what I would imagine a stage sitcom might be if there were such a thing. It is very easy to watch, but somehow lacks the elements that really sell a play. Those elements are specifics—the small details that help the audience get swept into another reality rather than remain in their seats—and they are lacking at times. I only mention this because I believe this production has tons of potential that could have changed something stagy into something real had this been remedied.
Bumgarner has come up with some very funny and clever blocking and it is very clear what he is going for; unfortunately the lack of specifics ensure that it isn't pulled off. For example, the apartment is a fifth floor walk up. Apparently it is a rough climb based on the dialogue from almost every character. Yet somehow it takes about 20 seconds for the first two visitors to make the climb. The third and fourth visitors take drastically longer. Another moment lost for me is when Corie, rushing to clean up for her approaching husband, gathers up a bunch of clutter on a sheet and directly stuffs it into the oven. This is an adorable piece of blocking, but she doesn't even consider another spot. Middleton lost the truth in this moments and therefore lost the humor in the bit.
The most disappointing loss came at the climax of the play. Corie and Paul engage in a very serious argument that could potentially end their marriage. The dialogue lends itself to a very heated moment between this couple. They are perfect for each other because of their differences and the idea of them breaking up, even if it is because Corie is being extremely ridiculous, should be uncomfortable and sad, and her reasoning should be what makes us smile. Instead the choices are right at the surface and I didn't believe for a moment that they might let this fight ruin their lives. In Bumgarner's director's notes he says "keep things real and the humor will naturally gush." I couldn't agree more, yet that is not what I saw at the performance. The reality was lost and instead we were shown actors in a play.
This is not to say the play is not enjoyable. This is a very sweet production of a very sweet play. Those who remember the pop culture references of the 1960s are sure to enjoy multiple chuckles. I simply do not believe it reached its full potential.