In 1963 Barefoot in the Park opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre and rocketed the careers of Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Director Mike Nichols was instrumental in the process.
In this new Simon comedy at the Neil Simon Theater, a successful novelist, played by Alan Alda, wrestles with intimacy, guilt, trust, control and several other buzzwords that have been known to saw through modern American marriages, upper-middle-class, upper-middle-age division. While the effort is painfully sincere and the jargon only slightly out-of-date (the characters seem untouched
as yet by "Iron John" and "Backlash")...
As this set-to-a-metronome production, directed by Joe Mantello,
demonstrates with such clarity, the comic languages of "The Producers" and "The Odd Couple" are not the same. The humor of "The Odd Couple" is rooted in watching ordinary guys, equipped with an extraordinary arsenal of zingers, turn
each other into irreconcilable caricatures of themselves, the way people do in bad marriages. The characters in "The Producers" are stylishly drawn cartoons, shaped by the performers' delighted awareness of belonging to the intoxicating, heightened reality of musical comedy.
A similar self-consciousness informs Mr. Lane's and Mr. Broderick's
attitudes in "The Odd Couple," which automatically creates a distance between them and the men they are playing. Their performances are framed in quotation marks. Mr. Lane is "doing" macho and slovenly; Mr. Broderick is "doing" repressed and anal-retentive. That's different from being slovenly or anal-retentive. And the gap between doing and being fatally exposes the cogs and
gears of Mr. Simon's impeccably assembled comic clockwork.
The highlight is mine. Part of why Simon revivals are tricky though, is that what was once an "extraordinary arsenal of zingers" may not be so potent anymore. But the raw basics of human interaction are still there. Mike Nichols, the original director of both Barefoot and The Odd Couple deeply understood this. Simon, in his autobiography, recounts how Barefoot was not going so well in rehearsals. It wasn't funny. Nichols told Redford and Ashley that the key to the comedy was that Corrie and Paul are not aware that this is a comedy. To them, "This is King Lear!" The rest, for better (Neil Simon's career and the audience's delight,) or worse (the attendant effects on the American theatre,) is history.
Nichols went on to direct the film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And directed the premiere of David Rabe's Streamers.
Thus endeth probably the longest post about Neil Simon you will read in the blogosphere ever.
Bad Habit Productions will be performing Barefoot in the Park this weekend at the Piano Factory. Meanwhile, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, and A Delicate Balance will be playing at the Lyric and the Merrimack Rep.