Ghost & Spice Productions has reached deep into the vaults of Samuel French for their latest comedy attraction, Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It has been two full decades since the play was last in the Triangle. Placed in the same year as the Summer of Love — 1969 — the play is a comic look at the middle aged man in a midlife crisis; how he masterminds a way to get himself a bigger piece of the pie; and how everything goes wrong as reality smacks up against this man's best-laid plans.
Barney Cashman (Jeff Alguire) is a restaurant owner in Manhattan, and has spent most of his life up to his elbows in fish. Now forty-seven, he finds he has lived his life according to the rules, and it is not all that happy a situation. He spends his life at the restaurant or at home with the wife and three kids, with three weeks out of the year on vacation, which he spends wishing he was back at the restaurant. He is ready for a little romance in his life. So Barney has concocted a scheme which he hopes will earn him some well-deserved romance.
Barney has the key to his mother's mid-town apartment, 432 East 37th. The apartment is little more than one room, tastefully but concisely furnished with a fold-out couch as a bedroom. Barney's mother is a volunteer at the hospital, and Barney has arranged for his tryst with a restaurant patron here, where they can be away from prying eyes. But the lady in question, Mrs. Elaine Navazio (Amy Bossi-Nasiatka), turns out to be a hard-as-nails broad who is just a bit too edgy for Barney to take. She is ready for action, and is put off by Barney's attempts to soften the tryst with a little romance.
Act II brings Barney back to his mom's apartment eight months later. He has learned from his mistakes; he dresses better, has brought more liquor with him this time and remembered to bring smokes, the lack of which was a burr under Elaine's saddle in act I. This time, Barney has invited a lovely young lass he met in the park yesterday. Having suggested she take an accompanist to her tryout this morning, he has invited Bobbi Michele (Amanda Watson) up to the address so she may repay him for his loan of $20 to pay for said accompanist. But Bobbi turns out to be even more of a handful that did Elaine, for thoroughly different reasons. Bobbi is a flower child, into braids, jeans, strange meetings with other men, and — much to Barney's chagrin — marijuana. Barney misses his second chance at romance in a cloud of smoke.
After a brief intermission, Barney returns to number 432, this time very much in his element. It has only been two months since his run-in with Bobbi; he has learned yet again from his mistakes, this time bringing champagne and two flutes with him. He is sure this time will be the charm, as his tryst is with someone he has known quite awhile, Jeannette Fisher (Meredith Sause), wife of his friend Mel and long-time friend of his wife Thelma. It seems that Jeannette trapped him in the kitchen at her house the other night, intimating that she would be his at a time of his choosing. He has elected to take her up on the offer. But Jeannette is a basket case, already deep in depression at the notion that her husband Mel is having an affair, and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of the current lack of morals in the world at large. Uptight does not begin to describe the lady that Barney has gotten himself wrapped up with this time.
It matters not that it is a foregone conclusion that poor Barney will never get what he wants. The problem is, Barney doesn't know what he wants. He has some idealistic notion of what he expects these trysts to be, but he has no idea how to manipulate the situation into giving him what he wants. His hilariously ineffectual attempts render us giddy with laughter, as the ladies he entertains steer him far afield of what it is he has come here after. Alguire as Barney is a complete schmaltz, a middle-aged man with a comb-over and a misguided idea of what love should be. He is hysterically funny as the straight man who must bear up under the burdens these ladies bring to him. Alguire runs the gamut from seemingly in-charge to a nervous wreck, as each lady seems to bring him further and further from his romance.
Bossi as Elaine is a perfect woman of the world, who is ready for some action, some booze, and a smoke. She is the woman that most men would bed and forget, and she is ready and willing for it to be that way. But when she runs up against the far-too-staid man who is looking for romance, Bossi lays it out for him. Elaine is far too worldly for such a man as Barney; Bossi makes it clear that he has a lot to learn.
Watson plays Bobbi wonderfully as a free-spirit lounge singer who is looking for her first big break. She is a hippie, in the sixties definition of the word. She has no money, is trying to get into showbiz, and is a complete ditz when it comes to men. But the seemingly — to Barney, at least — tragic and desperate situations Bobbi relays endlessly to this older man completely unnerve poor Barney, and the brief high that Bobbi lays on him is the closest the man will come to bliss. Watson is perfect for this role, and plays the free spirit with a glee and enjoyment that make act II the funniest of the three acts.
Sause as Jeannette puts the nails in Barney's coffin as it relates to his ever getting what he needs. We meet the stiffest of individuals in Jeannette, a woman who has been cheated on by her husband — who admits it openly — and she thinks that returning the favor is the best way to even the score. But poor Jeannette — especially with poor Barney — is way too uptight to ever be able to turn the tables on her husband, as much as she wanted to at dinner the other night. Sause gives us a strong characterization of a weak woman, who struggles to meet every day with pills and "melancholia." Sause plays Jeannette on a very thin tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and brings us full-circle as an uptight woman in midlife crisis, exactly as Barney is at the top of the show. Simon as playwright thus opens and closes the show with a comment on what people want, what they really want, and how they often go about getting it the entirely wrong way.
Ghost & Spice revives Last of the Red Hot Lovers with great care and a real understanding of what was happening at the time of the Summer of Love. Taking a simple premise and bringing excellent and sharp characters to bear on it, Simon leads us to understand that what we really want is usually staring us in the face, if we can only look for it. Director Jordan Smith lets the actors bring out these characterizations splendidly, and the result is a tried-and-true revival of a classic comedy. Tasteful and detailed staging by Rachel Klem gives the cast a perfect back drop to a well-honed and sharp comedy of the human condition. Last of the Red Hot Lovers is well worth your time.
This show continues through 10/22. For details, see the sidebar.