Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon. Directed by Scott Elliott. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Isaac Mizrahi. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Sound design by Ken Travis. Cast: Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson, Jill Clayburgh, Tony Roberts, with Adam Sietz and Sullivan Walker.
Gasp. Wheeze. Choke.
What you're hearing are not the utterances of out-of-shape amateur athletes at the end of the New York City Marathon. Nor are they, despite attempts to convince you otherwise, the gulps of someone who just climbed five flights of stairs to visit a cramped West Side apartment.
No, only actors can make such sounds, and only when violently flailing against a classic comedy they just can't make funny. So you hear them frequently in the revival of Barefoot in the Park that just opened at the Cort - specifically, whenever Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet are onstage.
How could this happen, you might wonder, with such young, sexy, and talented stars? Wilson, who's starred in three Broadway shows (though this is his first play), and Peet, who's making her debut but has proved her comic chops onscreen (The Whole Nine Yards) and wily smarts onstage (This Is How It Goes at The Public last season), would indeed seem ideal casting for Neil Simon's 1963 marital-adjustment comedy, which originally starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley onstage and Redford and Jane Fonda on film.
Yet from the instant the curtain rises on set designer Derek McLane's stylish, high-ceilinged apartment, something is wrong. There's clearly someone onstage, crouched on the floor and preparing a sheet of wallpaper, but the stage seems as empty as an undiscovered Egyptian tomb. We're not immediately drawn into the world, and as that toiling figure - soon revealed as newlywed Corie Bratter - goes about her business, it becomes clear she isn't either.
Peet isn't living Corie's life as much as playing it. And she approaches her scattershot behavior meticulously: Start applying wallpaper. Abandon it. Tend to record player. Resume wallpapering. Hear door buzzer and robotically tidy up. Answer the door. Et cetera. The fastidious detail with which Peet attacks these tasks doesn't indicate an impulsive free spirit: It's all blocking, clearly laid down by director Scott Elliott to establish Corie before she speaks a word.
Fast forward a few minutes to Wilson's entrance (accompanied by the heaving breaths those five flights of stairs induce). He's Corie's husband Paul, a soon-to-be-lawyer seeing his new home for the first time, and torn between his captivating wife of six days and the legal briefs he must peruse prior to his first big case in the morning. Which should he choose? Judging by Wilson's behavior toward both options, Paul would be just as happy watching Corie's blue-striped wallpaper dry.
Don't be surprised if your eye drifts that way, too: The wallpaper has more discernible colors than the leads. As Wilson and Peet play them, Paul and Corie might as well have been cut from the same cloth. He's not a Felix Ungar neat freak, she's not a slob; he's not a focused professional, she's not a professional liver of life. He's too open, she's too planned - they're smeary pastel portraits of one boring person, with just a few features changed to differentiate gender.
This makes for an amiable evening, one in which you can't help but see all they have in common. But Barefoot is about how disparate couples can (and even must) learn to live with each other when brought together under the single roof of companionship, sex, and love. Without Paul's intense desire for career success and Corie's go-anywhere-girl attitude to clash against each other, there's no foundation for the disagreements that begin as minor irritations and eventually threaten to destroy the marriage.
Unfortunately, the entire play is built around the pair's contrasting natures. Without them, it's reduced to a witless series of skits that capitalize on their nonexistent differences, and at best morbidly muted comedy. Simon's plays are generally laugh-fests, Barefoot - his most personal and the most easily relatable - chief among them. A homogenized Paul and Corie won't reveal the truth of the situation, and that won't produce many laughs.
So the show is prime for theft by actual personalities, thus making supporting players Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts Public Enemies Number One and Two. Clayburgh, as Corie's constantly kvetching mother, is a winning model of rational warmth and wisdom. (Wilson seems like a hippy next to Clayburgh.) The adventurous neighbor, Victor, is given a dryly urbane twist by Roberts (a replacement for Redford in the original production), who does dry and urbane better than anyone. (Roberts's Bohemian duds are a highlight of Isaac Mizrahi's surprisingly restrained costume plot.)
Wilson only comes alive with Clayburgh, and Peet with Roberts. Luckily, the characters share enough scenes to fuel the production through what would otherwise be an interminable middle section. The veteran actors continually offer enough for their juniors to feed on and nourish their own portrayals, and the scenes in which all four commune together suggest Barefoot's entertainment potential remains stratospheric, if unrealized here.
One can't help but ponder a reversed-gender, reversed-generation Barefoot in the Park with Clayburgh and Roberts. Even with them in these roles, it's a joy to have them on hand to help restore Simon's reputation as the king of comedy writing: Their readied, aimed, and fired performances demonstrate that Simon's comic voice hasn't diminished with the passing decades. Only its interpretations have.
Elliott is somewhat ahead of the curve in that regard: His pacing of the play occasionally drags, but overall is comically acute, and considerably more conducive to good times than that of Joe Mantello, whose production of Simon's The Odd Couple lugubriously limps along a couple of blocks away.
But, like Matthew Broderick in that production, Peet and Wilson never find the comic rhythms that will allow them not to act funny but actually be funny. While certain audience members may thrill to the sights of the two stars stripping to their underwear at different points, they'd likely have a better time if the actors shed their inhibitive outer shells and appeared emotionally naked instead.