New Century Theatre, Theatre 14, Smith College. Directed by Jack Neary
This is the first of four plays constituting the nineteenth season of New Century Theatre. The artistic co-producer, Sam Rush, was recently interviewed as saying that, in this post-meltdown period, he decided that the best thing to do was to produce all comedy. This Neil Simon play is the first of four comedies aimed at that target. It’s a funny play — Neil Simon is invariably funny — but that’s about all that can be said for it as a play. The date of the play is 1960s, and it shows its age rather badly. It’s supposed to be all about sex and affairs and philandering, but it is in fact a very chaste play, well within the bounds of 1960s respectability. Yes, I said 1960s respectability.
Barney Cashman is the proprietor of a fish restaurant who has been married to Thelma for twenty-three years. He is a man in his early or mid-forties, and for the past six months he has wanted to find out, after having been completely faithful to Thelma for those twenty-three years, what it would be like to be with another woman. Each of the three acts of the play is devoted to an experiment that proves to be — the phrase will be pardoned — abortive. One can predict from the start that the one thing we are not going to see on stage is actual sexual activity. Consequently, Simon’s self-imposed dramaturgical task is to write an act, and then another, and then another, that resolutely avoids and dodges what one might have thought was the hypothetically obligatory scene of sexual intercourse. But then, of course, you can’t put that sort of thing on stage; so there has to be a series of divergences and ruses to blithely avoid the inevitable. Simon is very good, it must be said, at avoiding the inevitable; but in the case of this particular play a good bit of his strategy turns out to be rather lame. The first act especially ended up feeling rather flat. The second act picked up because of the character of the woman whom Barney invited to share a brief afternoon with him at his mother’s temporarily vacant apartment. The third act was still a little more interesting because this time the woman who showed up was a good friend of his and Thelma’s and was, in the bargain, a high profile depressive. After three inconclusive and frustrating experiences, Barney is ready to pick up the phone, call his wife, and ask Thelma to meet him at his mother’s apartment for what we know and understand will be an entirely legitimate “fling.”
This is pretty tame, pretty boring stuff. And the overall feeling one has about it is that it is superficial even by Neil Simon’s high standards of superficiality. What is much more interesting to contemplate is the theatrical, rather than the dramatic, aspect of the show. There are four actors required: a first-rate comic actor to play Barney Cashman; and three expert and very well differentiated actresses to play Elaine, Bobbi, and Jeanette. I believe it’s right to note that Sam Rush does all the casting for the season, with possible collaboration from the other directors. Whoever chose the actress playing Elaine, Denise Cormier, she did not do as well as the other two actresses. She was competent but not sufficiently neurotic to qualify as self-destructive and faux-hard-as-nails as she needed to be — and to be funny while embodying this “complex” character note. This first act is in fact not as well-written as the next two; and after Elaine exits, completely out of patience, in a huff, and needing a cigarette more than she needs a good something-else, Barney collapses on the sofa and, inadvertently echoing Shakespeare’s King Lear, says “Never, never, never, never, never.” It would seem he has learned his lesson, and Buzz Roddy, who plays Barney Cashman to a “T” and is extremely well cast in the role (he played a brilliant, utterly mad Teddy Roosevelt in last season’s Arsenic and Old Lace), puts into that exclamation the kind of earnestness that we know is a false beacon for what will turn out to be two more equally frustrating, inconclusive, and disastrous encounters.
The next potential fling, with a blonde nutcase named Bobbi, is theatrically speaking much more successful. The part is played by Sandra Blaney, who played the ingenue in Arsenic and Old Lace last year, impersonating a borderline kook to perfection. She is permanently out of control, or just on the verge of it, can’t really hear anything that Barney says, doesn’t answer his questions, such as “Would you like a drink?,” and is so delightfully inaccessible as a person that we forget all about the potential sexual encounter and just enjoy Blaney’s brilliant, spot-on acting for what it is.
A similar experience lies in store for us when we come to Act III. The woman who walks through Barney’s mother’s apartment door, Jeanette, played very convincingly by Sarah Whitcomb, is mid-forties, unhealthily thin, terribly burdened by psychological problems, and looking just plain drab. But as a person, drab she is not. Paradoxically, she is the most appealing of the three women that Barney has lured to his mother’s apartment. She is a friend of Barney’s and a friend of his wife’s. Jeanette and her husband meet Barney and Thelma regularly for dinner. At one of these occasions, Jeanette has cornered Barney in her kitchen, pressed him down on her kitchen table, and made advances toward him more out of desperation than of sexual longing. Well, we have to take Barney’s word for the truthfulness of the encounter; left to our own devices, we might have serious doubts whether this poor, seemingly helpless and deeply depressed woman, Jeanette, might have been capable of such aggressive behavior.
Be that as it may, she has come to Barney’s mother’s apartment this afternoon bearing tremendous feelings of guilt and yet — this is what in a Neil Simon play passes for complexity — needing to do something, anything, to relieve the horrible feelings that she has felt for eight months, ever since her husband, Herb, leaned over in bed at two o’clock in the morning, tapped her on the shoulder, and told her that he was having an affair with a blonde bimbo known to them both. Since then, they have not made love; or as Jeanette self-pityingly puts it, Herb has, but she hasn’t. She has entered clutching her pocketbook to her breast (a symbolic gesture and as close to symbolism as Simon ever gets), and she continues to clutch it to her breast with arms of steel as the conversation moves on, until, after repeated insistence on Barney’s part that she put the pocketbook down, he rushes over to her, wrests the pocketbook out of her arms, “that God damned pocketbook!”, hurls it out of reach, and insists that they have a talk. Whitcomb appears to have an instinctive understanding of the perilous sanity of her character, and makes it utterly convincing.
Again, it is very nice to watch such good acting. We tend to forget how unsatisfactory the play is as a play because we so quickly have noticed that the success of the Neil Simon play finally depends much more on how you cast it and perform it than how it has been written. In fact, it seems to me the greatest compliment one can give to a Neil Simon play is to say that it seldom or never gets in the way of the acting. At least, that seems to be the case with this play. It may be that it is in the middle range of unsatisfactoriness, and that other plays of Simon’s, such as the early and delightful Barefoot in the Park, rise to the level of meaningful comedy. That’s to say, as much as they depend on expert comic acting and timing, and a more particular ability to deliver a whole series of the famous Neil Simon one-liners and conceal how very extra-dramatic and stand-up-comedy-like they are, they depend even more on the comic ethos that has held sway since the Romans first embarked on comedy for the people: namely, that the central character, often a young man, though here a man of middle age, is attractive and promising and ultimately a winner, but someone who has something to learn; and in the course of the play he learns it, aided and abetted by a winning woman.
Part of what makes this play work, finally, is that Simon has not brought onstage that winning woman, Thelma, someone who, Barney and Jeanette manage to agree, is one of the two people in the world who is a decent, loving, feeling person. The second is Jesus Christ. No actress, whether cast by Sam Rush or any other casting director in the world, could measure up to this ideal. So it’s very important that the image on offer remain an image only in the minds of the audience, who no doubt would be disappointed no matter how marvelous the actress who might have been cast to play Thelma. And so the very end of the play, after Jeanette has mournfully exited, gives us Barney picking up the phone — it is an incongruously yellow telephone, and for a moment, early in the play, we have wondered why Barney’s mother, in a million years, would ever have bought a yellow telephone — and putting in a call to Thelma. No, he’s not calling from the fish restaurant, he’s calling from his mother’s apartment and inviting Thelma over for . . . whatever it might be that they might do together for a few hours before Barney’s mother returns from Mount Sinai Hospital, where she goes for two afternoons a week to roll bandages.
This is what passes for the requisite comic dénouement. Its most happy attribute is that it is brief. It is in fact a rather lame dénouement, blithely accommodating itself to what we now remember, looking back on 1960s licentiousness, is the true, incontrovertibly Puritan character of twentieth-century American culture. So be it. Coming out of the theater, you know you have been witness to an authentic Neil Simon play; not a distinguished one, but still an authentic one. He made a million dollars, multiple millions, in fact, doing just this sort of thing and satisfying thousands of audience members who know just what to expect, and who can laugh a lot the whole time and find it satisfying — and find themselves completely unchanged by the experience. As I say, so be it.
A word about the title, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It’s a playoff on the familiar American classic title The Last of the Mohicans. The phrase has been used time out of mind to identify someone who is doomed to failure, a “loser.” By conventional standards, Barney is a loser in the sense that he doesn’t “make it,” doesn’t score with any of the women he has invited for an afternoon’s fling. But in another, more moral sense he isn’t a loser, because the comic thrust of the play moves him to a better realization, namely, that his wife Thelma is the prize, and that he has had to pursue some erring ways in order to realize why she is the prime value of his life. So he’s not really the last of the Mohicans, the last of the red hot lovers. He’s better than that, more of a winner, despite himself, than that. And the action of the play arranges for him to find that out. The lure of the title gets us into the theatre, and the three encounters baffle our expectations for witnessing a romp in the hay. It’s the three women that are the losers, and he is really not. Instead of a romantic tryst, we get something less erotic but more satisfying: a feel-good feeling that Thelma’s man isn’t such a schlemiel after all. Presumably, she richly deserves an afternoon at Barney’s mother’s apartment. We hope she gets it, but the play is not concerned with sexual fulfillment, Thelma’s or Elaine’s or Bobbi’s or Jeanette’s or anyone else’s, but with something else. Peace to the one-liners, there’s a deep vein of sentimentality at the bottom of a Neil Simon play, and this one is no different. We can afford to sympathize with the Barneys of the world. They are just like us.
Hey, how about a drink at Sardi’s before we head home?