Review: 'Barefoot in the Park'

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Lee Aaron Rosen and Virginia Veale in "Barefoot in the Park" at Bucks County Playhouse. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

After Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park hit Broadway in 1963, the then-sophisticated New York comedy ran 1,532 performances and became a popular movie. But time has ravished the formerly au courant Barefoot. A 2006 Broadway revival lasted a scant 135 curtains.

Still, there’s a special reason for the newly re-opened Bucks County Playhouse, once again professional, to produce Barefoot: The play is deep in its roots. The Playhouse was the tryout stage for Nobody Loves Me before it went to Broadway under its new Barefoot title. Portraying the young newlyweds at the play’s core, at the Playhouse world premiere and on Broadway, were Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley.

That was then. Now, it’s back, with all its wrinkles showing, plus more. One thing that can hold up well in the play is Simon’s chatty arc —  one-two punches of dialogue that made him a success — but not here. In this flat, charmless production directed by Sheryl Kaller (Broadway’s Next Fall), the tarnished Barefoot is brought up from the museum basement and put on display unpolished.

What went wrong? In the performance I saw Saturday night, a day after its opening, just about everything except for two energizing performances by its supporting cast. The trouble begins with Jim Noone’s impressive and deep set of a broken-down fifth-floor walkup, misused as the newlyweds play much of the first act so far to its rear, you feel like a voyeur.

Move on to our young husband, a new lawyer in a new marriage, played by Lee Aaron Rosen with a delivery that turns virtually all the laugh lines Simon gave him into foul-balls; you imagine, in his portrayal, the potential, and think: Hey! I heard that line before and it was actually funny! He comes off as nasty, dull and more of a fuddy-duddy than Simon intended him to be — not someone carrying a sheath of witty barbs.

His new wife, played by Virginia Veale, also begins as an unwelcome extreme — so giddily in love despite fears about the crummy flat she’s found, she appears to have no brain in the first act. By the second act, she’s inexplicably suddenly acquired one. Here, she taunts her husband with the notion of divorce, a development that in the play comes partly as a result of a night of drinking far too much ouzo. But in this production, the two are suddenly stone-cold sober, and we are summoning the ghost of Eugene O’Neill or maybe Tennessee Williams.

A heavy-handed Barefoot in the Park? Not altogether. It livens when the actress Candy Buckley (HBO’s Treme), despite looking too young as the bride’s mom, is onstage, and even more whenever the wonderful stage  and screen actor Jonathan Hadary (Spamalot and much more), appears as an oddball neighbor. Both actors work in the cadence and tone the play intends. 

Most nights, a different Bucks County community leader is set to come on in a non-speaking bit role. On Saturday night, he  was listed as Marvin L. Woodall, chairman of Bucks County’s Heritage Conservancy. His minute on stage generated more excitement than any other in the production.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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Barefoot in the Park: Through Sept. 2 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main St., New Hope. Tickets: $29-$54. Information: 215-862-2121 or bcptheater.org.

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