Regional Reviews: San Diego
In this piece that is written like three separate short plays, Barney desperately hopes to take part in affairs with various attractive ladies. Barney loves his wife and job, but the seafood restaurant owner doesn't want any regrets in life. In his mother's 1960s New York apartment, Barney tries to woo the cynical and married Elaine (Katie Karel), the extremely strange Bobbi (Noelle Marion), and the depressed Jeanette (Sandy Campbell). Although Barney believes his afternoons are guaranteed to be passionately romantic, he doesn't anticipate how awkward his discussions with each potential mistress will become. Regardless of consistent signs of trouble, he refuses to give up on following through with his immoral plan.
The acts start off in similar ways, with Barney getting the apartment ready for his unconventional dates. However, the extended scenes use different types of humor, related to the unique female characters Simon has created. His prose for Elaine includes a lot of sarcastic and biting humorous dialogue. Barney and Elaine's discussions are darkly funny and Simon doesn't paint them as innocent New Yorkers. After intermission, the most hilarious segment occurs. Audiences quickly realize that something is off with Bobbi, and her strange behavior builds to hysterically funny situations. Simon doesn't focus on Barney's struggles with his morality. Instead, he crams the second segment with jokes that range from silly to amusingly bizarre. When Barney meets up with Jeanette toward the end, the evening turns into more of a comedy-drama. Simon still uses humor, but the climactic conversation treats the characters seriously in ways the first two acts don't.
This ensemble cast make sure the punchlines land. Johnson's Barney exhibits many hilarious feelings, from timidity to repulsed anger. Karel, Marion and Campbell are distinctly different in their interpretations of Barney's "lovers," each slowly revealing layers about the Manhattanites. Their comedic chemistry with Johnson is immediate.
During the different chapters, director Christopher Williams doesn't underplay how abnormal Barney's voyage is. What's amusing about the way he uses Marty Burnett's set is how the home is repeatedly transformed. Even though Barney's mother's abode isn't the most romantic environment, he desperately wants to turn it into one. Enhancing the 1960s setting are Aaron Rumley's audio choices. Songs like "What's New Pussycat?" and "What the World Needs Now Is Love" are appropriate for the generally lighthearted evening.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers might be frequently funny, but there are issues that happen in Act III. To really explain the problems, there are some mild spoilers ahead. Barney briefly changes into a much creepier man. His behavior towards Jeanette borders on harassment and it can get uncomfortable watching him upset her. Although he never commits any horrible crimes, seeing his "good guy" persona change in such a dark way is a tonal shift than Simon may not have intended. Also, for a show dealing with such a controversial subject, the ending ties events up a little too neatly. These problems take up only a few minutes of Williams' staging and don't get in the way of the laughs.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers isn't the most insightful look at lust and indecency, but Simon fans won't leave disappointed. Over the last few years, North Coast Rep has featured a play from the writer in each season. Let the tradition continue for years to come.
North Coast Repertory Theatre presents Last of the Red Hot Lovers through October 1, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach CA. Tickets start at $44.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 858-481-1055.