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Celebrate Neil Simon's 50 Year Old Comedy "Barefoot in the Park" at Theatre Works

By Ellen Burnett, Citizen News


Our first walk-up was in Chicago, on Oak Street, and Lake Michigan was a block away. The year was 1955 and Bill and I were sublimely in love. He bought me a volume of Edna St. Vincent Millay (wild and red-haired like me, he said). The sound of Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos (my gift to Bill) still blissfully can sound in my ears; alone now in Sherman.

TheatreWorks in New Milford offers us another young couple, in a play about "home" written from his life when Neil Simon was about to become famous in 1963. He brings love, life and that first "home" brilliantly alive and audiences (of all ages) sat beguiled by the sweet essence of this early Simon. The bare stage, the skylight, the tiny cramped kitchen are familiar, and the nostalgic 60's music wells over us as director Tom Libonate pulls us in before a word is spoken.

As Unforgettable fades and the stage lights go up, we settle in for another TheatreWorks production. Theater-goers in this off-Broadway equipped theater always seem to feel at home: they read aloud to one another from the program, and often compare notes as to which actor appeared when and in what show. The sharing is always warm, convivial and contagious.

Even though you read "15 minute intermission," no one left their seat after a short Act I. The recordings, the interesting, dimly lit stage being set for Act II takes place before our eyes. This choreographed decoration of the "Barefoot in the Park," top floor of a brownstone in NYC is ingenious and we can't wait for the developments we know will happen. (Remember Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the film? Of course you do.)

And Now "The Review"

Firstly, there's nothing wrong with the Simon script, the entire cast or the director, Tom Libonate knows what he wants and he gets it. The actors here all have the theater chops to chew over the comedy before they swallow. It's easy in a "Barefoot" production to see the supporting cast steal the show. In TheatreWorks' present production, they are indeed sublime, but the leads, my readers, are what hold this classic together.

Jessica Alex is a professional; she's an adorable (and equally irritating) Corie. Her perky exuberance, her lusty six day marriage and her need to move out of the comfort of an upper-class upbringing keep us rooting for Corie all the way.

Jessica does calm down a bit, and begins to think before she prances. Her heart-to-heart with mom (M.J. Hartell) is a really solid scene.

Daniel Willey is the newlywed, Paul, an attorney and "stuffed shirt." The appalling prospects of the loft's considerable shortcomings, five floor climb, and a strange neighbor bring him to the brink, but he succumbs wisely and lovingly. Daniel's comic timing, good looks and great physical work may evoke Redford, but he is his own "Paul." He loves his girl and knows how to bring her around. We're smitten with Corie, finally, because of Paul.

The supporting cast all endure entrances after walking up five floors. The repetition of their arrivals is one of comic theater's standbys. The engaging Jeff Savage, as a deliveryman, never speaks, but he sets the tone (and hilarity) for them all. Jonathan Ross's telephone repair man is iconic Simon. He recovers in time to deliver some delightful one-liners, and his body language is stylish, subtle and expertly funny.

We've been set up for Victor Velasco, the couple's "upstairs" neighbor. Kevin Sosbe is the cad we grow to love. He is a practiced, middle-aged gigolo who uses his "charm" to get everything for nothing. Kevin brings years of experience to this role. His natural talent, his physical comedy (note his body tilt, his stance, that voice) are realized in this hilarious and sad portrayal.

When Kevin and M.J. Hartell (She's Corie's mother) hit their stride in Act II, we see team work that doesn't "just happen." The development of these characters is a highlight of this "Barefoot."

If you arrive only for their post-party entrance, it's worth the price of admission.

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