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There is more than meets the eye other than the three major venues at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh. After hibernating during three of the four seasons, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, the hidden theater company behind and beneath Meymandi Hall, emerges in the summer to present a brief but varied season of theatrical offerings. Their 2010 lineup consists of four productions running through the end of August, and leading off is Neil Simon’s delightful romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park.
Opening on Broadway in 1963, Barefoot ran for 1530 performances and led to a 1967 hit film adaptation starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, a failed TV show and a modestly successful revival in 2006. Like a musical virtuoso whose flawless performances appear to spring effortlessly and inevitably, Neil Simon has, for the most part, an unerring knack for polished comedic dialogue that barely covers the intricacies of human relationships. His facility in this regard– and more likely his enormous success – has led many to dismiss him as the precursor of formulaic TV sitcom writing, but based on this production you can color those detractors green with envy.
Barefoot is the story of newlyweds Corrie and Paul Bratter, their escapades with the upstairs neighbor Mr. Velasco and Corrie’s mother Ethel Banks, and the young couple’s realization that everyday married life is very different from a six day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. Corrie (Casey Tuma in her debut role with Hot Summer Nights) is waiting for her new hubbie Paul (Robbie Gay) in their newly rented five floor walkup in New York City. This five floor trek up to the apartment and the resulting exhaustion is referenced many times and comes quite close to becoming tiresome. Corrie is perky, annoyingly bubbly and full of spunk and soon discovers that husband Paul is hopelessly responsible, a “fuddy duddy,” and 26 going on 66. A sub plot involves Corrie’s attempted matchmaking attempts of her mother (Pauline Corbda) with their quirky, needy and foreign upstairs neighbor (Paul Palinyenko) – gotta have a wacky neighbor in any domestic comedy.
If your only prior experience with Barefoot is the movie then, like me, you might at first find the portrayals by these actors as unrealistic caricatures, way over the top and half expecting a laugh track. But, eventually you stop thinking of it as realistic high drama, surrender to the fun and just lay back and enjoy it. Casey Tuma is a bundle of energy as the six-day married Corrie who wants only to have fun and the attention of her husband. Robbie Gay, playing the cautious Paul, took a while to settle into his role. At first all of his lines had the same delivery and cadence and he seemed to rush through them (a sure sign of nervousness), but he eventually relaxed and improved his comic timing.
Pauline Cobrda, who has an uncanny resemblance to Kathy Bates (at least how she was made up for this role) was marvelous as the befuddled old (50?) mother of Carrie and milked her role for all its comic nuances. Rounding out the four leads was Paul Palinyenko as the lecherous, freeloading Victor Velasco, a part that screams excess and exaggeration, and Palinyenko obliged with great panache.
Director Richard Roland gives us a fast paced and engaging production without once having the nearly constant dialogue implode on itself and become frantic and cartoonish.
The set was one of the stars of the show with the creative backdrop representing the doors leading into the tiny bedroom, the bathroom, a closet and the oft-used front door of the apartment. The living area grew from an empty space to a nicely furnished living room with the help of staff members merely moving them into space between scenes.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Take a break from the multitude of catastrophes going on in the world, don’t think so much and enjoy a well done comedic classic at Hot Summer Nights.
The show continues through June 20. See our calendar for details.