Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Ken Baltin and Karen MacDonald
Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Gloucester Stage Company has three key ingredients for a sure-fire winner: Neil Simon, and Boston area actors Karen MacDonald and Ken Baltin. You pretty much know going into a Simon comedy that the laughs per minute ratio will be high, but MacDonald and Baltin share an amazing chemistry that produces an elixir that can wipe away the tears from the rainiest June on record. It barely mattered that the previously announced fireworks over the harbor after the show had to be cancelled due to weather, because the opening night crowd was still buzzing from the colorful, sparkling performances of these two pros.

Baltin plays Barney Cashman, a fish restaurant owner who decides he'd like to try some of the other fish in the sea after being married to his high school sweetheart for twenty-eight years. MacDonald takes on all three of the women he invites to his mother's apartment in New York's East Thirties for love in the afternoon. Elaine, Bobbi and Jeanette offer a diverse sampler that challenges Barney's libido and base intentions, while providing the actress a whale of an opportunity to show her prowess.

In each of the three acts, Barney entertains one woman for the two-hour time period that his mother volunteers at Mount Sinai Hospital, wanting to spice up his staid life by sharing in the sexual freedom of the '60s, yet hoping for something memorable and romantic. Preparing to meet Elaine in act one, he is a fussy, nervous neophyte, beautifully mimed by Baltin as he closes the imaginary window blinds, removes two tumblers and a bottle of J&B Scotch from his briefcase, applies aftershave to his face and smells his fingers, tests the sleep sofa and rearranges the furniture. It is a mark of Simon's genius and the actor's achievement that, without a word being spoken, we know who Barney Cashman is less than five minutes after he leaves his wet galoshes on newspaper by the front door. In act two, he loosens his collar and replaces his tie with a neckerchief, but he remains a buttoned-up guy who is merely experimenting with sticking his toe into the infidelity pool. His horizons and his eyes are widened by Bobbi, a young woman he met in the park, especially when he takes his first tokes of marihuana at her insistence.

By his third attempted tryst, this time with his wife's friend Jeanette, Barney looks the part of the swinger, wearing casual attire and offering chilled champagne in flutes. Baltin is able to let loose as Barney's frustration and inner longings rise to the surface and he gets in touch with what he's really been seeking. He finally knows what he wants and where to find it, and Baltin makes Barney's Ah, ha! moment feel legitimate and genuine.

In both the 1969 Tony-nominated play and the 1972 movie, three actresses played the roles of the intended paramours, but MacDonald's characterizations are so strikingly dissimilar and spot on that the minimalist casting works. Dressed in black from her faux fur to her textured hose and high boots, her Elaine is outspoken and take-charge with an under layer of tired dissatisfaction with her mundane life. Although she all but coughs up a lung, only her need for a cigarette makes her fidgety and edgy; she's done this before and is not the least bit nervous, in contrast to the novice Barney. Chatterbox Bobbi seems to be a chipper hippie with her colorful muumuu, peace sign-adorned fabric tote bag and special cigarettes, but there's more to her than meets the eye. MacDonald teasingly unveils Bobbi's darker side with flashes of paranoia, occasionally breaking into Burt Bacharach songs and speaking in non sequiturs as if it were all normal behavior.

MacDonald appears to physically shrink into the role of Jeanette, the dour, gloomy housewife whose percentage of happiness is eight point two. With her shoulders hunched, her elbows tucked close to her sides and her hands tightly gripping her pocketbook against her stomach, her discomfort is palpable. She wears big, dark sunglasses to obscure her face and her head is covered with a scarf, effectively making her look like a Russian spy from a James Bond movie. Everything is dismal for Jeanette, but MacDonald brings out the humor as well as the pathos, creating a character who is struggling to find meaning in her life. Barney and Jeanette live similar lives and know the same people. Their shared experiences enable them to help each other see another side of their individual situations and shift their paradigms. In this final act where Simon has cut the couple from the same cloth, MacDonald and Baltin click on all cylinders and give a master class in controlled mania in the denouement.

The production team at Gloucester Stage Company provides a detailed depiction of the '60s, from background music to costumes, wigs and props. My favorite aspects of the unit set include the plastic-covered sofa, the doilies atop the wooden surfaces, and the plastic runners protecting the worn Oriental rugs. The evocative decor tells us a lot about Barney's absent mother, yet also serves to remind us that we are observing another era, a time long since past, both culturally and decoratively. Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a quaint story by today's standards, but that is part of its charm. Ultimately, it is a story about connection, and that never goes out of style.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon. Performances at Gloucester Stage Company through July 19, 2009. Box Office 978-281-4433 or Directed by David Zoffoli, Set Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry, Lighting Design by Kenneth Helvig, Wig and Makeup Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, Production Stage Manager Marsha Smith. Featuring: Ken Baltin and Karen MacDonald.

Photo: Shawn Henry

- Nancy Grossman

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