Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Barefoot in the Park
Tickets are only $15 each, general admission, and seats are socially distanced. Even so, opening night was lightly attended. Perhaps it's the resurgence of COVID infections, but the live theatre audience is not yet back in full swing. In the auditorium, only the actors were without masks. The first three rows were blocked off so the unmasked actors wouldn't be too close to the audience. Avery noted that masks had been worn by everyone in the cast during rehearsals.
That all makes for a strange way to watch live theatre, but at least it was live. The Zoom offerings during the past 18 months were difficult to watch, even though theater companies gave it a sincere shot.
Barefoot in the Park is one of Neil Simon's early efforts. The play was very successful in a Broadway run that began in 1963 and stretched for more than 1500 performances. The play, along with the subsequent movie version, made Robert Redford a star. The story follows newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter (Abby Van Gerpen and Michael Weppler) during their second week of marriage. They've returned from a honeymoon week at the Plaza, and now they're setting up their new life in a walk-up efficiency apartment.
The conflict comes from the clash between Corie's free spirit tendencies and Paul's conservative attorney-on-the-rise demeanor. Given the year is 1963, the notion of free spirit has not yet come into full bloom. That would take another four or five years. So, she's a rather muted free spirit. Simon makes a lot of the five-floor climb to the couple's new apartment, working to squeeze every laugh out of the exhausted telephone installer (Parker Owen) and delivery man (Jerry Hines) as well as Corie's mom Ethel (Jillian Foster).
Add to this cast of characters, the odd (but interesting) bird, Victor Velasco (Mario Cabrera), who lives in a sixth-floor attic above the newlyweds. Fun ensues as Corrie attempts to match her conventional mother with the East European Victor. In the first act, we get a full-blown Neil Simon calamity of miscues and unexpected connectionsstretching out to Staten Islandwith everyone exhausted from the five-floor climb over and over.
In the second act, things get interesting. Corrie and Paul get into a fight. In the first act, we see 1963 as antiquated. Yet the fight in act two would fit surprisingly well in a contemporary play. It's a real fight. I've experienced many of these spiked jabs and gotcha lines in my life. They are real and they hurt. The actors carry it off spectacularly.
Avery has put together a cast that includes many of Albuquerque's best actors. Given the scarcity of acting opportunities, he probably had his pick. He's giving us strong actors like Owens and Hines in bit roles. In meatier parts, Weppler, Foster, and Cabrera are more than solid. The star of the story and this production, of course, is Van Gerpen as Corie.
The character of Corie comes from a long run of ditzy-but-actually-smart housewives in theatre, film, and especially TV. This character fails utterly if the emphasis is not on smart. Mary Tyler Moore was almost too smart in "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and Gracie Burns pushed too far with ditzy. Lucille Ball was the master. Simon offers a version of this character in most of his plays. After the mid-'60s, he moves away from the housewife while keeping the smart crazy girl motif.
If I hadn't seen Van Gerpen as Nora in The Doll House or as Miss Honey in Matilda, I would have thought she was born to play Corie. She's that good in the role. She has become an Albuquerque treasure. In Barefoot in the Park, I didn't expect wonders. Corie is a type, and that limits interpretation. Yet Van Gerpen infuses this light character with dazzle. In the 1967 film, Jane Fonda played Corie with fake exuberance and an underlying cynicism. Van Gerpen is all in, delivering Corie with full energetic approval. When it comes to the fight scene with Weppler, she's all firecrackers and pathosoften at the same time.
Weppler holds his own, but Paul is outwitted by Corie, so he's mainly hanging on for dear life as this Tilt-A-Whirl comes off its tracks. The conflict is also a type: the straight husband at a loss before the out-of-bounds craziness of his wife. Weppler does a fine job with Paul, but real fun happens as Van Gerpen gives us the "I don't care if I say something I can't take back" over-the-top blows that make for a truly brutal domestic battle. During act two, I couldn't see Van GerpenCorrie had taken over. I hope the audience grows in number through the production. This is a delicious treat.
Everyone on the production side does a wonderful job. The set (designed by Staci Robbins and Avery) is far more substantial than expected. The lights (Joseph Wasson Jr.), costumes (the always-terrific Carolyn Hogan), and props (Amy Mershawn) are all excellent. Many kudos to Avery for delivering a pitch-perfect production during the weirdest of dramatic times.
Barefoot in the Park runs through August 29, 2021, at Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, Albuquerque NM. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are general admission for $15. You can buy tickets online at albuquerquelittletheatre.org or by phone at 242-4750, ext. 2.