One of my favorite things about being a theatergoer is having the chance to see new productions of favorite plays. Unlike the movies, where the word “remake” usually spells artistic disaster, revivals of popular theater favorites give directors and actors the opportunity to put their own stamp on iconic productions and roles, and playgoers the chance to revisit favorite characters and situations—with a fresh new twist.

The latest example of this is Covina Center For The Performing Arts’ spiffy revival of Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park.  StageSceneLA regulars may recall our rave review of Glendale Centre Theatre’s production of Barefoot just two months ago.  Having seen and loved that in-the-round staging, one which gave me a new appreciation of just how timeless Simon’s writing is (even when the play’s events unfold inside the time capsule of the 1960s), I found this very different looking but equally well-acted proscenium staging an absolute joy. What better way is there to spend an evening than with an oldie-but-goodie given fresh new life by an absolutely terrific cast under the direction of a comedy master like Greg Zerkle?

From the moment I took my seat inside the Covina Center (one of the plushest and most state-of-the-art 99-seat theaters in L.A. county), I knew I was in for a treat. Angelo Collado and Jerry Marble’s set is a textbook perfect envisioning of the play’s 1962 5th floor New York City walk-up apartment, complete with broken skylight. Most exciting of all was the realization that Collado and Marble’s set puts the top part of the five-flight climb in full audience view, thus allowing the audience see the parade of gasping-for-breath visitors, not just as they enter the apartment, but even before they ring the doorbell.  This ingenious design doubles the laughs of each entrance, and maybe even triples them when only the top of the gray-haired delivery man’s head (a bewigged Nicholas Pariser) pops up to stage level, his trembling arms holding up the packages he’s brought with him, unable to ascend a step further.

Barefoot In The Park, you may recall, is the then 36-year-old Simon’s look at an “odd couple” of newlyweds, every bit as mismatched as The Odd Couple’s Oscar and Felix. Corie Bratton, described by Simon as “lovely, young, and full of hope for the future” is a joy-filled, adventurous young bride married to an equally young but absolutely unadventurous stuffed shirt of a lawyer husband.  (Simon describes Paul Bratton as a man who’s “26 but breathes and dresses like 56.”) How can these two find happiness when fuddy-duddy Paul won’t even take off his shoes and run barefoot in Central Park, freezing winter temperatures be damned?

Glendale’s production featured a rising young actor I described as “a young Jack Lemon” in the role of Paul. Covina’s introduces 6’4” Mark Schroeder to L.A. audiences, and trust me, this is only the first time you’ll be reading about this young…Dick Van Dyke.  (Clearly Paul Bratter has been in great comic hands these past few months.)  The lanky blond Schroeder has Paul’s adventurousness-challenged young lawyer down pat.  (The guy is so anal-retentive that he stores his neckties between the pages of a dictionary to keep them perfectly pressed.)  It’s thus even more of a treat to see Paul drunk, Schroeder’s mastery of physical comedy prompting those Van Dyke comparisons, or attempting to fit his basketballer’s frame onto an undersized sofa following a late-night tiff with Corie.

Jessica Marie Smith brings pertness galore to Corie, and she is cute as a button.  Still, I couldn’t help wishing for a more naturally acted, less mannered Corie. One scene which Smith does play to perfection is Corie’s Act Two crying jag. It’s rare that an actor can cry honest-to-goodness tears and be funny at the same time, and Smith does just that. It’s a wonderfully-played scene.

Besides offering its young leads a pair of dream roles, the play is a character actor’s dream come true, Simon having written three of the best roles ever for 50something performers.

First up is Harry Pepper, telephone repairmen, masterfully brought to life by Sean Everett.  Trudging up those final steps, turquoise Princess phone in hand, declaring bravely “I’m okay. Just a little out of breath” even as he groans in pain, Everett nails every one of Simon’s one-liners and gets applause at the end of both of his hilarious scenes.

Next among the “older” visitors is upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco, played by Broadway’s Nick Santa Maria—now batting three-for-three following his recent star turns in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and The Producers. Victor, you may recall, is the 58-year-old European lothario whose joie de vivre makes him Corie’s instant soul mate, eager to introduce her to the delights of “knichi” (salted eel which must be “popped” into the mouth and never nibbled) or the supposedly Albanian folk song “Shama Shama,” which according to Victor means “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.” Santa Maria not only milks every laugh imaginable from Simon’s jokes, he gets laughs simply by saying “Paul” or “Mrs. Banks” in an indescribable (and indescribably comic) foreign accent.

Completing the over-fifty trio is Beth Robbins as Mrs. Ethel Banks, Corie’s mother, a role originated unforgettably on stage and screen by Mildred Natwick. Robbins is a prettier, younger looking Ethel than Miss Natwick, but no less funny as she underplays to perfection, her dry delivery a perfect fit for lines like “I don’t know dear. It’s not bad really . . . What is it, nine flights?” and “I didn’t think I’d make it … If I’d known the people on the third floor I’d have gone to visit them.” Robbins and Santa Maria have such great stage chemistry together that it makes their “one night stand” absolutely believable.

Zerkle’s direction is so imaginative and inventive that it makes me wish to see more of his work as a director.  (Zerkle spends much of his time acting under the name of Gregory North, recently as Emile De Beque in South Pacific.) Many of the laughs in this production had me wondering, “Was that Simon’s idea or Zerkle’s?” and I think the answer was often the latter.

One of Zerkle’s great inspirations is to turn the interval between the original play’s first and second acts (combined here into a single) into a scene-change “ballet,” as the actors methodically transform the Bratter’s bare ochre-painted apartment into a veritable feast for the eye, with curtains, chairs, wall-hangings, etc. in Technicolor blues and reds. Meanwhile, a large chunk of the Covina Center stage floor disappears, only to rise up hydraulically bearing a bright red sofa to complete the psychedelically-hued room. The scene change gets arguably the longest, loudest applause of the evening, and there are many long, loud bursts of applause.

Patrick Copeland gets highest marks for his sound design, which features the very 60s sounds of the Swingle Singers, and a great echo effect whenever Corie shouts down the stairs to the visitor climbing from four flights below.  Bryan Dauterive’s lighting makes the set look even more gorgeous than it already does.  Elizabeth Dreisbach’s costumes are mostly spot-on, save Corie’s very mid-to-late 60s mini-dress and knee-high boots, not at all what a 1962 bride would have worn—a minor quibble however when compared to the overall excellence of the production.

Neil Simon of course went on to win the Tony for The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and Lost In Yonkers (the latter also winning him the Pulitzer Prize), works which grew steadily deeper and richer in themes and characters.  Still, it’s an absolute joy to go back to the beginning of Simon, back to the days of Barefoot In The Park.  Some have accused Simon of sitcom humor, but if so, his plays are the best sitcoms in town.  Every one of his characters in Barefoot In The Park is 100% real. A production as fine as this one makes it clear why Barefoot In The Park is no creaky relic, but a classic one can revisit again and again. I’m pleased as punch to have had the chance to do just that.

Covina Center For The Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave., Covina.

–Steven Stanley
March 6, 2009

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