Monday, August 29, 2016

WOBT: "Barefoot in the Park"

Third time's a charm for director Blair Dyson at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre. With two previous productions under his belt, this one has a strong and capable 5-actor ensemble who bring Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park to charm local audiences during its three-weekend run.

One of contemporary American theatre's most prolific playwrights, Simon's urban romantic comedy features his signature witty dialogue and screwball situations that somehow seem familiar and ordinary, allowing audiences to quickly relate to his characters.

In Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds -- free-spirited Corie [Lolly White] and her conservative up-and-coming-lawyer husband Paul Bratter [Brady Walker] -- are moving into their five-storey walk-up first apartment [six flights if you count the front stoop] in a building that houses several odd neighbors; not the least of them is Victor Velasco [Adam Shephard], a worldly middle-aged bon vivant whose sophisticated manner enthralls Corie's mother Ethel [Janie Allred].

The apartment is tiny, a kind of extended studio that accentuates the physical and emotional closeness that might be ideal for the lovebirds, but which challenges everyone's ability to cope with the changes coming into their lives. -- Corie wants her mother's approval on most things, and sees an opportunity for a friendship in introducing her to Velasco; Paul has his first court case to prepare for overnight, but is coerced into going out to an Albanian restaurant that Velasco recommends; and Ethel reluctantly agrees to go where both she and Paul tentatively sample exotic foods while Corie relishes the new experience that Velasco offers.

Corie and Paul are the proverbial meant-for-each-other opposites-attract couple: she enthusiastically tries new things without a thought to consequences, and he is "always proper and dignified" to the extent of being labeled a "stuffed shirt". So, even when a crisis threatens to wreck their marriage, there is never any doubt that they will patch things up. And Ms. White and Mr. Walker  are so sincere in their characterizations that even her petulance and demand for a divorce after a seemingly trivial disagreement, and his sometimes over-the-top  drunkenness after walking barefoot in the park in the dead of winter to prove to her that he can take risks, come across as credible in their excesses.

Ms. Allred's passive-aggressive Ethel knows how to get what she wants, but her guard is down under Velasco; and Ms. Allred's transformation from taking prescription drugs and sleeping with a bed-board to a much healthier and live-in-the-moment woman under Velasco's tutelage is expertly drawn.

Mr. Shephard's Victor -- "the Bluebeard of 48th Street" -- is disarming from the start: oozing a confidence that disguises his con-man tactics that get others to pay for food and drink, he relies on his reputation as a connoisseur that gives him a dangerous appeal, especially to the women. Deep down, though, he is a good sort whose intentions with Ethel are always above board. Mr. Shephard makes him a character we admire.

With a running gag about the long flights of stairs that exhaust Paul and Ethel but seem to have no effect on either Corie or Velasco, and with two appearances by Mike Proper as a phone company worker who serves to add a reasonable tone to an otherwise madcap plot, Mr. Dyson keeps the action moving briskly; and his ensemble are in top form, providing a pleasant entertainment for the River Region.