The Last of the Red Hot Lovers is not Neil Simon’s most famous play, but it appeared on Broadway during his most fertile period and ran from December 1969 through September 1971. North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production, running in Solana Beach through October 1, does the play justice but also exposes some of its flaws.
Barney Cashman (Phil Johnson), a restaurant owner in New York, married his childhood sweetheart and still thinks she’s the right woman for him. But, it’s 1969, and he’s noticing the sexual revolution swirling around him. At 47, he figures he doesn’t have much time to give adultery a try, so he starts looking for women he can invite for trysts at his mother’s Murray Hill apartment during times she regularly sets aside for volunteering.
He finds three: Elaine (Katie Karrel), who he flirted with at his restaurant, Bobbi (Noelle Marion), who came into his life through a chance meeting, and Jeanette (Sandy Campbell), his wife’s best friend.
He brings each to his mother’s studio apartment (designed by Marty Burnett and lit by Matt Novotny in the ugliest of Sixties color schemes), but each of his planned seductions goes awry. Elaine, it turns out, wants to be the aggressor, and Barney suddenly turns shy. Bobbi starts out as eccentric and sexy but quickly reveals herself as a major loon. Jeanette agrees to the tryst but can’t seem to let go of the purse she’s clutching.
Under Christopher Williams’ steady – maybe too steady – direction, the action unfolds in the style of boulevard comedy, a form that was popular during this period. Essentially, the writer creates characters with whom the audience can identify and then puts them into situations that can get out of hand – which is where the humor lies. The popularity of this kind of storytelling may well have been driven by restrictions that were still in effect on network television. Portraying adultery would have been questionable, and foul language was definitely out (interestingly, the script makes much of every four-letter word it uses – and there aren’t many of them). All of those restrictions are passé today.
Perhaps that’s why each of the three original women cast members (Linda Lavin, Doris Roberts, and Marcia Rodd) had their greatest successes performing in television productions.
In each episode, Mr. Simon sets up a basic premise (pushy, loopy, frigid) and keeps repeating the joke. Mr. Johnson, as Barney, isn’t given a lot to do but react, especially in “pushy” and “loopy.” There’s an established relationship at work in “frigid,” though, so there’s a chance for interaction and growth – and playing off the quite wonderful Ms. Campbell allows this scene to work far better than the other two. Ms. Karel and Ms. Marion are both on target, but Mr. Simon doesn’t give them a whole lot to work with.
(Note that I’ve used misogynist terms to describe these situations. Maybe I’m being a bit unfair with these labels, but the play is most assuredly a product of its time).
The production does keep you aware of the era, especially through Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Aaron Rumley’s choices of incidental music.
North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein seems to have identified Mr. Simon’s work as rife for revival: he’s programmed The Odd Couple, Chapter Two, Laughter on the 23rd Floor and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers in the past six seasons. I’d love to see some of Mr. Simon’s more serious work (Biloxi Blues, Brighton Beach Memoires, Broadway Bound, or Lost in Younkers) thrown into the mix.
On a sad note, longtime San Diego critic and theatre writer Charlene Baldridge died at curtain time on opening night of this production. Always generous with her praise, I suspect that she would have admired the acting, laughed out loud at the jokes and appreciated the creative team’s efforts to keep the work “in period.” I shall miss Charlene very much.