BAREFOOT IN THE PARK
by Neil Simon
directed by Marilyn Crowther
Colne Dramatic Society
First and foremost, Barefoot in the Park is clever and hilarious, filled with snappy dialogue and witty one-liners, with a mixture of innocence, exuberance and genuine wisdom. It is tale of a newly married couple’s attempt to make a go of their lives in a small, freezing-cold attic apartment in Manhattan, helped and hindered by the young wife’s bossy and opinionated mother as well as a zany Hungarian neighbour.
Despite being written in 1963, this play has survived time very well and in no way seems at all dated. It is as fresh today as it was in the 60s due, in no small measure, to the superb direction of a very talented cast on a wonderful set. The only hint of the play’s age was reference to monetary fees.
The plot revolves around problems that everyday people face, especially in their interpersonal relationships. It traces Paul and Corie Bratter and the difficult first week of marriage in their new apartment. Paul is a dour, strait-laced lawyer, while Corie is a free-spirited optimist with a zest for experiences. The sub-plot involves Corie setting up her staid mother, Ethel, with the Bratters’ adventurous Bohemian neighbour, the Hungarian, Victor Velasco.
Not only are Corie and Paul starting out on married life, but Paul is a lawyer making his first foray into a court case the following morning.
Corie, played superbly by Jess Balderston, set the scene for what was to follow and we realised what an optimist she was. Her cup was never half full, it over flowed. The choice of apartment was hers alone: she had made the decision for herself and she was extremely proud of it.
Paul was played by Riz Riley. Here was a 25 going on 50 year old man, newly married, starting out in the legal profession and wanting to do his best with his first court case. This was an excellent portrayal of a pragmatist, the complete opposite of the bubbly Corie. When Corie jumps, Paul observes! This was another superb performance by Riz.
The apartment is on the fifth floor, sixth if you count the outside stoop, and this fact provided many comic moments as the other characters were introduced. The telephone repairman, Henry Pepper, played by Michael Mullen, was first to buzz to be let in and shortly after he entered gasping for breath. He realises that Corie must be a newlywed from her romanticising the apartment which has no heat, has a hole in the roof, no bathtub and a miniscule kitchen. He sets up her phone and he leaves, wishing her well and steeling himself for the long trek down the stairs. This role was beautifully understated and was true to life.
As the phone rings, the buzzer to the door also sounds – it is new husband, Paul. He arrives out of breath and Corie kisses and hugs him as they talk about their six-day honeymoon.
The breathlessness after climbing five flights of stairs became the running gag for the play, and not once was the opportunity missed. Even the department store delivery man, played by Paul McKiernan, carried the imagery through.
Living on the fifth floor means that mothers and friends are less likely just to drop in. When the buzzer goes and it is Corie’s mother, Edith, played by Beverly McKiernan, arriving, out of breath from having climbed all those stairs, she quickly casts an eye over the unfurnished apartment, and comments on various aspects of the living space. “It’s nice,” says mother. “You don’t like it!” says daughter. Superb delivery of dialogue at points like this peppered throughout the play, provided many of the laughs. It was an excellent portrayal by Beverly of the doting mother.
Another example of Simon’s quick-fire humour was when Corie, trying to seduce her husband away from preparing his court case, saying, “I was going to cook you spaghetti with white clam sauce … in a bikini.”
As if things could not become more complicated, we were introduced to Victor. Four months behind with his rent, he uses the Bratter’s bedroom to access the window ledge to gain access to his own attic apartment. John Cummings, with his Magyar-American accent, became the focus of attention when he described his knichi, an eel dish. The knichi must be consumed within five minutes of its cooking time and must be “popped” not “nibbled” to avoid bitterness. The scene with the popping and nibbling of the knichi was hilarious, never going too far but creating a very, very funny situation.
The play abounds with hilarious situations, all microcosms of the players’ varied foibles and characters. The drunken scene after they visited a Staten Island Albanian restaurant was one of the best I have seen on stage. Never going too far, always staying in character, the skilful hand of the direction was very much in evidence.
There was so much that was excellent in this play that it is difficult to single out any one element. The sets at Colne Little Theatre are always superb, but the one created for this play by Alan Hargreaves and Joe Midgley was outstanding, and very much up to professional standards. The New York backdrop created by John Mills was superb.
The lighting and sound design by Richard I’Anson and Paul Thompson, was always correct and on cue.
The furniture and small properties were echoes of the period and were never intrusive. There was room for the characters to move around the stage effortlessly.
The American accents were consistent throughout and all the characters came from the same area.
The attention to performance detail was first-class. The bulk of the play is taken up with dialogue between Corie and Paul. It was quick fire delivery all the way with excellent diction and projection by them.
The supporting roles of Victor and Edith were equally excellent and the interplay between them very well observed.
As is often said, there are no small parts in a play, as each character has a vital role to play within the narrative. And so it was in this production, where the telephone repair man and the delivery boy were both very well played.
The standard of amateur dramatic productions this season has been extraordinarily high throughout the northwest. Productions have ranged from classic drama to murder mysteries, to dramatizations of real events, comedies, thrillers, and farces.
Very many congratulations to Colne Dramatic Society for its contribution to this high level.
Thank you for your very warm hospitality. I look forward to your forthcoming season.