Barefoot in the Park - Gloucester Stage Company
Barefoot in the Park – Gloucester Stage Company
Review by James Wilkinson
Barefoot in the Park is presented by Gloucester Stage Company. Written by Neil Simon. Directed by Shana Gozansky. Set Design: Jeffrey Petersen. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Sound Design: David Remedios. Props Design: Lauren Corcuera.
Neil Simon is the theatrical equivalent of a cozy sweater. The kind you don’t wash for fear that the spin cycle will somehow upset the delicate balance of softness and warmth. At least, that’s the case for me. To admit my biases upfront, I’ll say that the man has earned (or perhaps the better word is ‘claimed’) a special spot in my theatrical-going heart because the first play I ever worked on back in high school was his 1981 play, Fools (not one of his better works, but for nostalgic reasons, it’s got its own room in that theater heart of mine). So, when I went to Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Barefoot in the Park (which I think is one of his better works), I went expecting a charming and enjoyable evening at the theater. And that’s exactly what I got. Gloucester Stage’s production is an incredibly charming and enjoyable one that goes down like a glass of warm milk.
I have a circle of friends that will probably raise an eyebrow at the statement above, but I don’t at all mean it in derogatory terms. In fact, I’d argue it’s part of the reason why the production connected as well as it did with the audience around me. I think that given the state of the world (and you don’t need me to go into the state of the world), the production acts as a moment of kindness in the chaos of our day. There are challenges and obstacles for the characters in Barefoot in the Park, but there are no villains. There’s no one in the corner twirling his mustache and plotting the downfall of the protagonist. Instead, Simon lets his story unfold with a gentle touch, preferring to see what happens when his characters are let loose on one another. The humor comes not from punching down, but by the ways characters can’t help letting their personalities clash.
The personalities in question are that of newlyweds Corie (McCaela Donovan) and Paul (Joe Short). She’s the more adventurous, anything-goes type while he’s got both feet on the ground. After spending a week at the Plaza hotel for their honeymoon, the two are settling into their first apartment and married life. The furniture hasn’t even arrived when Corie’s widowed Mother (Paula Plum) makes her first visit. Hoping to bring some excitement into her mother’s life, Corie arranges for a double date with fellow free-spirited neighbor Velasco (Richard Snee). Paul isn’t so sure about the idea, but Corie barrels on ahead. The couple’s response to the evening plants a seed of doubt in both their minds. Perhaps their personalities aren’t compatible enough to make this marriage work.
This kind of “we’re-just-two-different-kinds-of-people” scenario has been mined for comedy so often that the situation should feel like an old hat, but Gloucester Stage’s production avoids that pitfall. There seems to have been a conscious decision to embrace the fun and heightened reality Simon’s text offers. The set and costumes provided by designers Jeffrey Petersen and Rachel Padula-Shufelt wrap the production in bright pops of color that subtly suggest the play’s 1960s setting. It all just seems a little unreal, but then again, Simon’s dialogue is a little unreal. When they get going, his characters display the kind of quick wit we all wish we had a command of. Director Shana Gozansky provides a staging that syncs the play’s verbal and physical humor, never letting one vein overshadow the other. While the production never quite got me to the level of large belly laughs, I found myself reliably chuckling pretty much from start to finish.
The big draw for the production, (at least, according to the advertising), are the two married couples that make up our quartet of actors. As the elder generation in attendance, Paula Plum and Richard Snee turn in reliably good comedic performances. Plum gets to tap into a nervous energy that’s slowly released through the evening while Snee exudes a smarmy charm that never crosses into cartoonishness. The only performer I wasn’t entirely sold on was McCaela Donovan, whose instincts seem to be running contrary to the character. Every time Corie wants to go up, it feels like Donovan wants to go down. It’s possible that she’s just too practical a presence for the free-spirited character. I think that Joe Short fares a little better finding a comedic rhythm for the piece although it’s a little hard to ignore that he and Donovan are playing characters at least a decade younger than their actual age (in one moment that makes you cock your head and go “Really?” Paul specifically notes that he’s twenty-six years old). It may seem like quibbling to bring up age (and maybe it is), but I’d argue that the youth of the characters is part of what sells the newlywed’s fight in the final third of the play. No one older than twenty-six (at least, no one who’s not also in their right mind), would genuinely think that the argument they have would lead to divorce. The comedy comes from the fact that they’re willing to pack it all in at the first sign of trouble. But if you enter a marriage in your late thirties with this sort of mentality, then just what in the hell have you been doing with your life?
But did this speed bump prevent me from enjoying the production? Hell, no. There’s enough warmth and intelligence in Gloucester Stage’s production to make for a zippy, fun evening at the theater. Don’t think about it too much and try running barefoot in the park.
Barefoot in the Park is presented at Gloucester Stage Company June 7-30, 2019
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.gloucesterstage.com
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