A couple of years ago, Village Players was in dire straits, but thanks to a dedicated board with a zealous sense of mission, they’ve turned things around. And you can see the results in their latest production, Barefoot in the Park.
Last year’s foray into Neil Simon’s treasure trove of crowd-pleasers-The Odd Couple-starred two members of Village Players’ board, Jack Crowe and Carl Occhipinti, who undoubtedly worked cheap and did a workmanlike job with what was essentially an “in-house” production.
This year’s production shows that Village Players is once again attracting young talent and is apparently able to pay them-always a good sign for a theater company on the comeback trail. They even landed a British-born filmmaker, Paul Cotter, who’s had films premiere at Sundance, to direct the production.
The cast includes Jacquelyn Zook, delightful and very appealing as the free-spirited newlywed who isn’t quite ready to give up her honeymoon; Andrew Weir, her stuffed-shirt attorney husband, who’s preoccupied with establishing his career; Lorraine Freund as the judgmental, overinvolved mother of the bride; and Norm Woodel as the mercurial life force, Victor Velasco, who lives upstairs. Audiences know Woodel for his frequent voiceover work, most notably the University of Chicago Hospital commercials (“At the forefront of medicine”). He’s a natural who throws himself into the role and steals most of his scenes. We sat next to his sister who came all the way up from Tennessee with a contingent to support him.
It took a little while to warm up to Weir and Freund, both of whom suffer from flat delivery and hit-and-miss timing (timing is everything with Neil Simon). But they really come on strong in act two when the pace picks up.
Because he’s such a clever writer, one could make the mistake of thinking Simon’s plays are all about snappy dialogue, but this production thrives on physical comedy, including the running gag of a succession of servicemen and visitors bursting through the apartment door of the sixth-floor walk-up (“five if you don’t count the stoop”) in varying stages of cardiovascular collapse. But it’s the protracted fight between the newlyweds in act two that’s worth the price of admission, complete with slamming doors (a testament to the sturdiness of the set), food flying and a phone ripped out of the wall. Weir in particular shows a flair for physical contortion as he catapults from a prone position up and over the back of the sofa to make a point.
Mention should also be made of R.J. Ogren who not only designed that sturdy set but does a nice turn as the telephone installer/repairman, serving as comic foil to the roller-coaster marriage he intrudes upon.
The play (which debuted on Broadway in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols, with Robert Redford as the husband) shows its age. The importance of a landline phone as a plot device rings archaic in the age of cellphones. And the resolution of the main conflict (she needs more realism, he needs more romance) is pretty conventional. Let’s face it, you don’t go to Neil Simon for deep insight. This is entertainment and 44 years later, about 2/3 of the laughs still work, certainly enough to make for an entertaining evening at the theater.