Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"

Rose: "Why would a man need more than one woman?"
Johnny: "I don 't know. Maybe because he fears death."
--Moonstruck [1987]

Johnny's response in the film Moonstruck is also the crux of the matter in Neil Simon's comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers [1969], now being shown at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre, where the central character Barney Cashman [Will Webster] engages in hilarious encounters with three distinctly different women.

A bit of a nebbish, and essentially a "gentle, loving, and decent" fellow, Barney is appealingly naive when, after 27 years of marriage, he decides to have an affair, and uses his mother's apartment while she is away for a few hours in the afternoon. Completely ill-equipped for such a dalliance, always aware of his mother's fastidious housekeeping, and naive to any protocols, his attempts at romancing the three women are bound to fail from the very first moment, precisely because he is "gentle, loving, and decent."

Mr. Webster is on stage for the entire two hours and twenty minutes, a tour de force performance that shows this actor's versatility: comic timing, physical dexterity, clear and complex characterization, and a generosity in sharing the stage with three excellent actresses. -- And though Neil Simon was considered a lightweight comic writer in these early days, only being recognized for greater depth as his career developed, there are several serious notes in Last of the Red Hot Lovers that ought to receive attention.

In Barney's first encounter with sexpot Elaine [Leslie Blackwell], he first admits that this is "the first time in my life I think about dying". -- Elaine is loud, direct, and businesslike, and he is obviously nervous; and while he wants conversation "to get to know one another", she wants a drink and a cigarette. Ms. Blackwell is best at delivering one-liners with a deadpan seriousness that take Mr. Webster off-guard. And his blue-suit uptight demeanor dooms the relationship from the start. Our hearts go out to him, and also approve of her matter-of-fact non-judgmental exit.

Barney's second encounter with the hippie Bobbi Michelle [Leanna Wallace] is by far the most outrageously comical of the three. Ms. Wallace inhabits her character with all its contradictions and paranoid behavior with such unassuming grace and naivete that each squeal or aggression or petulance is welcomed by collective audience laughter. Goofy and charming throughout, this pot smoking scatterbrained chatterbox who has a Nazi-lesbian roommate, never misses a beat; and the pot smoking sequence loosens Barney up to the delight of the audience, especially as it has a near maudlin realization of Barney's age and mortality.

In the third encounter with Jeannette [Chantel Oakley] the icing is put on Simon's cake. Jeannette is a friend who clutches her pocketbook and has what amounts to an extraordinary emotional breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably and ruining any chance of an affair. -- She too is searching for the happiness that Barney seeks, and Ms. Oakley's melodramatic demands for him to name three people who are "gentle, loving, and decent" lead them both to realize that they and their spouses are the only ones that matter. Growing old together with the recognition that other people experience the same doubts and fears is a comforting note on which to end Barney's escapades.

Director Tom Salter stages Last of the Red Hot Lovers on a period specific 1960s set, and defines each scene distinctly, always aware of Barney's attempts to improve by adjusting to what came before, yet failing gloriously each time. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that stem from Simon's witty dialogue and adroit characterizations from the acting ensemble, making this an enjoyable and thought provoking production.