The Academy of Performing Arts has long produced Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon’s large body of dramatic work, usually performing one of his plays a year. Last September it was the touching “Brighton Beach Memoirs;” this time it’s one of Simon’s lighter comedies, “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”
Born in 1927, Simon has written over 30 plays and almost an equal number of screenplays (based mostly on his dramas). He’s not only the only living playwright to have a Broadway theater named for him, but as a writer he’s been awarded the most combined Tony and Oscar nominations, 17 and four respectively.
Written in 1969, the play is set in New York and focuses on Barney Cashman, an anxious middle-aged man, who, after marrying his high-school sweetheart 23 years earlier, worries he missed out on the sexual revolution. Using his mother’s small apartment that is available in the afternoon until 5 p.m. on the days his mother volunteers, Barney sets up three romantic interludes.
Bringing Woody Allen to mind, Geof Newton comically plays up Barney’s exaggerated angst and indecisiveness. Learning from and adapting after each extremely different female encounter, Newton slowly begins to portray Barney with more confidence and a take-charge attitude by the play’s end.
The hard-edged Elaine Navazio is played by Carol Penfield, who walks into the apartment like she owns the place. Her thick New York accent matches her no-nonsense attitude, similar to what you might expect from a mafia wife. Being the recipient of Barney’s first attempt at an affair, the matter-of-fact Elaine has no patience for his nervous, get-to-know-you chit chat. Being “old fashioned,” Barney is stunned by her directness, and asks, “Is it possible you are as cold as I think you are?” To which Elaine quips, “I need gloves to take off my underwear.”
Rachel Hatfield portrays the ditzy Bobbie Michele, Barney’s second attempt at an affair. Hatfield is quite humorous as the crazy and paranoid actress who seems to consciously collect mentally unstable boyfriends. Rambling on and on about her failed relationships while smoking “medicinal” marijuana, Barney can’t tell the truth from fiction and anxiously worries for his safety.
Barney’s wife’s friend Jeanette Fisher is the last woman invited up to the staid 1938-styled apartment. Played by Newton’s real-life girlfriend Ellen Birmingham, Jeanette couldn’t be more different from the two other extreme female personalities. Clutching her purse non-stop, Birmingham is appropriately understated as the middle-aged woman diagnosed with “melancholia” who doesn’t know why she agreed to meet Barney. Newton, in direct contrast, plays Barney with a new-found calm and coolness, insisting there are still “decent, gentle and loving” people to be found even in this “guiltless age.”
Directed by Peter Earle, the comedy is much less shocking today than it was in the early 1970s, but it still highlights universal themes: the desire for human connections, marital struggles, lost opportunities, and fears of death, while inanely displaying many human foibles. During the two-hour-plus drama, the action could be quicker at times, especially when Barney is alone readying the apartment.
Each actor in the APA’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” successfully dramatizes each character’s absurd and over-the-top quirks, making us realize, with some relief, that we are normal by comparison.
“Last of the Red Hot Lovers”
At The Academy of Performing Arts
Through Sept. 24
Information and reservations: 508-255-1963