When we first see Barney Cashman, the hapless protagonist of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, in a winning Northern Stage production at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, he’s poking his head into his mother’s New York City apartment. His body follows, limb by limb, as he insinuates himself into the apartment trying to leave as few traces behind as possible.
The reason for these over-the-top precautions?
Barney is doing everything in his power to have an affair, and he’s using his mother’s apartment for that purpose. The window of opportunity is narrow: between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., when his mother returns from work.
The first object of Barney’s affections to make an appearance on stage is Elaine Navazio, a magnificently jaded woman who has done this kind of thing before, while at age 47 this is Barney’s first time out. And, boy, is he desperate to succeed, to a painful degree.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers premiered in 1969, well after Simon had already become a Broadway name in the early and mid-1960s for his plays Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, for which he won a Tony award.
Like much of Simon’s work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a comedy tinged with melancholy. Or maybe it’s the reverse: a domestic drama shot through with comedy.
Simon isn’t writing a Lear, Julius Caesar or Blanche DuBois. These aren’t larger-than-life characters, but exactly life-sized. They’re you and me and the next-door neighbor, only with better jokes. Here, we both laugh at and commiserate with Barney, as his strenuous efforts to be a Lothario are undermined by his own basic timidity and decency.
Barney wants to break out of the predictable humdrum of a long marriage to his high school sweetheart, Thelma. It’s the ‘60s, everybody’s doing it, so why not Barney?
OK, so Barney doesn’t behave like a practiced adulterer. He’s too nervous, he lacks suavity and, as the owner of a seafood restaurant, he has the really unattractive habit of sniffing his fingertips to make sure they don’t smell of fish.
But give him an A for effort! Three times over the course of a year Barney tries to consummate an affair: with Elaine; with Bobbi, a giggly, pot-smoking hippie; and with the depressed, weeping, clutching-her-purse-to-her-chest Jeanette, who happens to be one of Thelma’s best friends.
Barney becomes more experienced at the mechanics of setting up a putative affair, from the wine to the cigarettes to dressing less like an office clerk and more like a sporty man-about-town. But what he can’t manufacture is his deep longing to connect, physically and emotionally, with another human being.
During Simon’s long career he’s gone from being condescended to as a joke machine who came out of 1950s television to being taken more seriously as a bittersweet chronicler of romantic longing and family dynamics.
He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, the third in his trilogy of autobiographical plays, which also included Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, and which delineated the pre- and post-war Jewish experience in New York.
I was expecting the jokes and physical comedy of Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Watch how long Simon goes without introducing dialogue in the play’s opening scene, relying on the sight gags alone to drive the action.
I was surprised, though, by the autumnal mood, and the characters’ wistful sense that they have to grab whatever they can, while they can, because life is short, pleasure is fleeting and disappointments are abundant.
It’s telling that the play was produced during the era of the so-called sexual revolution, when the prevailing zeitgeist on the coasts was that sex came without consequences and without obligations. But Simon is an old-fashioned moralist. There are always consequences and obligations.
Barney can’t really bring himself to act the playboy because, deep down, he feels that any extramarital delights will be paid for somehow, someway.
This production, deftly directed by Maggie Burrows, who previously oversaw Northern Stage’s productions of Fox on the Fairway and Mad Love, has the advantage of an evenly-matched, terrific cast who make the most of Simon’s physical gags. David Mason, who appeared as an abusive son in Northern Stage’s most recent production Trick or Treat, couldn’t be more different here as Barney.
He nails Barney’s tentative, finicky manner, his attempts to be urbane, and his deep-seated insecurities. He and co-star Jenni Putney, as the daffy Bobbi, have a tremendous scene in which both smoke pot. But while Bobbi is used to it, Barney’s never smoked it before. Mason’s comic chops here reminded me of Jack Lemmon’s ability to pull off that kind of Average Joe-gets-in-over-his-head funny business.
Putney, who also was in Trick or Treat, playing Mason’s character’s sister, is delightful as Bobbi, a free spirited actress whose mental acumen may, as the old saying goes, stop short of a full deck. She bounces all over the place, like an untrained puppy, leaving Barney exhausted.
Deb Radloff is particularly good as the cynical, opportunistic Elaine. There’s a corrosive bitterness in Elaine that Radloff brings out to maximum effect. And Danielle Slavick brings a sincerity and pathos to the role of the confused, befuddled Jeanette, who, it turns out, makes Barney realize certain truths about his life with Thelma.
The overall premise of Last of the Red Hot Lovers is perhaps a thin skeleton on which to hang a play, but there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had watching Barney and his would-be conquests negotiate the terms of engagement. It’s a mad, mad, mad world and we’ll take laughs wherever we can get them.
Last of the Red Hot Loversruns through March 5 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. For tickets and information go to northernstage.org, or call the box office at 802-296-7000.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.