Neil Simon's passing on Aug. 26 created a moment of nostalgia for American theater audiences, suddenly eager for another taste of the playwright's comedic brilliance.
The Hillsboro Artists' Regional Theatre serendipitously met this demand just two weeks later with the opening of "Barefoot in the Park," one of Simon's earliest, most successful and best-loved romantic comedies. The show runs until Sept. 23, so there is still a bit of time to catch this sweet, funny little gem.
The play is set in the early 1960s, and tells the story of newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter, who are just moving into a tiny fifth floor apartment (no elevator, of course) in a New York City brownstone. Just over a week into their marriage, the naive, free-spirited Corie decides that she and her button-down, conventional young lawyer husband have nothing in common — their first real argument goes very, very badly and before they know it divorce is on the table.
With the help of Corie's rather odd mother, Ethyl Banks, and an even odder neighbor, the mysterious and exotic Victor Velasco, everything works out OK in the end — a classic Simon mashup of external cynicism and internal romanticism, where eccentricity somehow provides a meandering path to traditional marital bliss.
One secret to a successful "Barefoot in the Park" is the casting, and HART's folk made the brilliant decision to cast two real newlyweds, Rachel and Andy Roberts, as Corie and Paul. Aside from the Roberts' considerable acting chops, the "awww" factor is heightened by the fact that Rachel and Andy first met several years ago as ingénue leads in HART's production of "Anything Goes."
By the time the audience got through the cast bios they were solidly rooting for both the real life and stage couple, and we were not disappointed by what the show's director Aaron Morrow calls "that crazy, wonderful chemistry."
Rachel Roberts takes "cute" to new heights, and reveals that she is, when necessary, a world-class pouter and shouter. Andy Roberts creates for his character a rigid, uptight diction and bearing that make his efforts to find a comfortable marital common ground touchingly pathetic — we cannot help but empathize with his confusion about how to please his maddeningly lovable bride.
The other key couple is Velasco (played by Johnnie Torres) and Banks (played by Beth Self). Torres is as good a Velasco as I have seen — a curious combination of sincerity, worldliness, poverty, and gallantry with just enough sliminess to make it all very, very funny as he flits and oozes around the stage.
Self's take on Ethyl is a bit more bewildered and slapstick than some, but she's very entertaining and the audience really responds to her wacky delivery. In other words, it works!
Rounding out the cast are Mark Ferris and Mark Putnam, trading roles as the telephone man and the delivery man.
The two consistently make the most of their exhaustion after climbing all those stairs, and at the end of the first act, they are so entertaining that much of the audience stays to watch their performance even after the houselights go up (a serious error, as it means missing out on the fresh-baked intermission cookies.)
The playwright's death may have played a role in filling seats at opening weekend, but the quality of the acting should ensure that there will be good houses for the remainder of the show's run.
"Barefoot in the Park" runs through Sunday, Sept. 23, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays at HART Theater, 185 S.E. Washington St., in downtown Hillsboro.
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