Inspired direction and a pitch-perfect cast make barebones blackbox magic this week only at Silver Lake’s Lyric Hyperion Theatre in the 1963 Neil Simon romcom classic Barefoot In The Park.

Adrienne Visnic stars as Corie Bratter, joy-filled, adventurous and newly wed to straight-laced, ever prudent young lawyer Paul (A.J. Helfet), begging the question how two such opposites can possibly find happiness when free-spirited Corie’s fuddy-duddy hubby won’t even take off his shoes and run barefoot in Central Park, freezing winter temperatures be damned.

Not that Mrs. Paul Bratter isn’t otherwise the quintessential Kennedy-era housewife, delighted to stay at home in their fifth-floor New York City walkup while fledgling lawyer hubby Paul is out bringing home the bacon.

Contemporary audiences may chuckle or grimace at Corie’s unabashed joy when Harry Pepper (Steven C. Fisher) arrives to install the latest-model phone in the small piece of Manhattan real estate she and Paul now call home or the fact that Corie’s still youthful mother Ethel (Sandy Bainum) is considered “old” at fifty, that is until Victor Velasco (Mark Arthur Miller), the bohemian ladies’ man living in the attic above the Bratters’ flat shows up to prove otherwise.

Still, period pieces don’t get (or stay) any more charming than Barefoot In The Park, every bit as delightful in 2017 as it was when audiences first savored playwright Simon’s gift for the one-liner some fifty-four years ago.

Simon mines multiple laughs from the knichi Victor brings over for dinner, salted eel which must be “popped” into the mouth and never nibbled (and entirely a Simon invention), or the purportedly Albanian folk song “Shama Shama,” which according to Victor means “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.

This being the 1960s, cocktails get guzzled in record proportions, giving Helfet a hilarious drunk scene and Bainum equal time to play hung-over. And because no story of newlyweds would be complete without the requisite spat, Visnic and Helfet get to go at it like nobody’s business.

An in-the-round staging not only allows director Brandon Baer to substitute an audience’s imagination for the skylight-topped New York apartment set that a higher-end proscenium set would require, it inspires the kind of directorial ingenuity that already made Baer one to watch even before he graduated from USC three years back.

Need sofas and armchairs that budget and theater space won’t allow? Simply cover Act One, Scene One’s steamer trunks and boxes with patterned tablecloths and throw in a few hassocks and cushions for good measure. Need for snow to fall from a hole in a non-existent skylight? Enlist the cast’s participation to make it happen. Need to have a one character looking down at another from said skylight? Keep both actors at ground level and let the audience visualize the rest.

Most importantly, cast actors so comedically gifted and right for their roles that Simon’s dialog sparkles without an iota of the overplaying or “going for laughs” that might transform a lesser production into standard sitcom fare.

Baer’s fellow Class Of 2014 Trojans Visnic and Helfet recall classic ’60s big-and-small-screen couples Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemon, and Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York, making each a perfect fit for their now iconic roles.

The radiant Visnic plays Corie to perky, ebullient perfection and Helfet makes stick-in-the-mud Paul as irresistible as a tall, handsome, charming stick-in-the-mud can get, and the longtime besties’ real-life chemistry is palpable.

Impeccably coiffed and dressed, Bainum’s Ethel gets funnier the more frazzled she gets, Miller gives Victor an English accent, European urbanity, and plenty of panache, and Fisher makes the most of the increasingly winded but resolutely good-humored Harry.

Uncredited costumes have a just-right early-‘60s feel. Lighting fits the production’s back-to-basics feel. Only an era-establishing sound design would complete the mix.

Christina Bryan is stage manager. Kate Harrow is technical director

Even minus a detailed production design, Barefoot In The Parks delivers the comedic goods, and then some. There may be other Neil Simons in the months to come, but they’ll have a hard time topping what Baer and his tiptop cast have achieved on a shoestring.

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The Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake.

–Steven Stanley
November 30, 2017
Photos: Betsy Newman


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