Tuesday, September 12, 2017

“Last Of The Red Hot Lovers”: A Vintage Simon In Ready Made To LOL.

Barney Cashman is a happily married man with three grown children. He owns a successful fish restaurant that has been in his family for over forty years. He and his wife Thelma have been married over twenty-two years.

Every day he drives, in his Buick, from his middle-class home in Great Neck Long Island to his restaurant in the City dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and black tie. His father instilled in him, always a blue suit.

Aside from the fact that his fingers have a perpetual fish smell, and he is going a bit bald, a little sag around the middle his life is pretty…well, middle class dull. Barney wants to cash in on the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
Phil Johnson as Barney Cashman in "Last Of The Red Hot Lovers"
And this is exactly where we find ourselves in Neil Simon’s vintage 1960’s play “The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers” now in a chuckle a minute production at The North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through Oct. 8th. 

Simons’ penchant for rat- tat -tat repartee, his comic signature, is written all over this late 60’s play. Director Christopher Williams knows this and takes full advantage of his leading and funny- man Phil Johnson and a seriously funny and smartly chosen supporting cast.  

Simon has written about 30 plays. North Coast Rep. has produced about 11 of them over the years. I could be wrong about that, but in the early eighty’s yours truly recalls at least four, one starring founding mother Olive Blakistone playing the role of Kate Jerome in the first of Simon’s BB Trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs”.

“The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers” premiered on Broadway in 1969 just at the end of the sexual revolution of the ‘free wheeling’ sixties and Barney Cashman wants a little piece of the action.

Katie Karel and Phil Johnson
To get the ball rolling he ads an extra shrimp into Elaine’s (Katie Karel) shrimp cocktail and then he leaves an address on the back of a dollar-eighty check. Now Elaine, no stranger to secret meetings finds herself in Barney’s mothers Manhattan apartment because he thought a motel ‘might be too sorted’. (“Listen, I always say, keep it in the family.”)

To say that Barney has a penchant for picking just the wrong gals to schtupp would be an understatement. He actually managed to lure three very different types to his mother’s apartment.

Unfortunately the only things he got in return for his concerted efforts were a sharp tongued alpha female, a wacky loon he met in the park, a family friend and lessons in morality and decency that came from an unlikely source. 

Tough as nails and sexy Elaine Navazio (“Mr. Navazio assumes I’m married. I assume what I want.”), his first ‘guest’ catches him on his every move. That includes his finger smelling, watch watching and replacing her Scotch glass in a coaster so as not to leave any telltale marks on  his mother’s meticulously polished furniture. She might notice water marks on the table when she comes home from her volunteer stint at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Katie Karel is the perfect foil for Johnson’s little eccentric traits, knocking him down every time he thinks he’s on safe ground. Karel is also perfect with Simon’s dialogue; again it’s the rat-tat-tat faster than the speed of sound repartee. 

Phil Johnson with Noelle Marion
Johnson does most of the work with his second selection, Bobbi (Noelle Marion) the of the wall younger than Barney’s daughter kook who met Barney in the park when he offered to loan her twenty dollars she needed to pay ‘her accompanist’.

She shows up at the apartment dressed in an orange mini-mini fluff of a skirt (Elisa Benzoni) and promptly headed for the window AC to cool off. The AC sends her skirt floating a la Marilyn Monroe standing over the manhole cover in her famous shot.

For every seemingly seductive move she makes like bending over to fix her shoe exposing her matching orange panties Johnson counters with another look into the audience, like I can’t believe my luck, look.  

But Bobbi goes off on tangents about dogs being kidnaped and her Nazi housemate, and being beaten by some Mexican in a motel, and every oddball story you can imagine. (“I tell you this man had his teeth sharpened, can you fill in the rest?”).

 Let’s just say that little attempt ended as disastrously as the first. But hat’s off to Noelle. Her Bobbi is such a fresh change of pace that it was fun watching the interchanges and Johnson's facial expressions.

The surprise of the evening came when Jeanette (Sandy Campbell) long face, sad eyes, clutching her handbag seriously to her body, (reminded me of my mother-in-law) walks into Barney’s mother’s apartment as if she’s going to collapse from depression. According to her, her life with the exception of 8.2 percent of being happy has otherwise been disappointing. 

Phil Johnson and Sandy Campbell
She and Barney know each other. They had dinner at their house just a few nights ago when he made his move on her. She just happens to be Barney’s wife’s best friend. Why did she come? That’s a long story and one that you will have to see for yourself. 

One thing one never overlooks however is the seriously committed way Sandy puts herself into a part. It could be as Maria Callas in her award winning performance in “Master Class”, her role as Bessie Berger in “Awake And Sing” or her stunning performance as Lucille in  “Parade”.

Returning to the NCR stage after a 15 -year hiatus, she is perfect as the depressed, repressed wife of a man who cheated on her and she’s about to give Barney a lesson on decency. And she does as Simon’s play takes a turn to the serious side.

And then of course, there’s the ‘last of the red hot lovers’. Phil Johnson doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him in this play. He’s a natural comedian and this particular of Simon’s play is his genre.  

Unfortunately Barney’s character is one note played over again three times. But ever the showman, he pulls off as many tricks of the trade that he has up his sleeves and it works. He’s just a funny guy on stage with his body language and facial expressions saying all that needs to be said.

Speaking of perfection, set designer Marty Burnett’s stylishly designed, set in the 60’s yellow color schemes and looking very much like a Jewish home (note beautiful candelabra on the dining room table) polished to the brim is kinda cozy but not too comfortable; too many pillows and no room for mistakes!

Aaron Rumley’s sound design, (Tom Jones, yum) and Matt Novotny’s are perfect for the period.

Speaking of comfortable, references to minorities might have been vogue then, not so much now.

For a fun evening, it’s worth a try.

Dates: Through Oct. 8th.
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858.481.1055
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D, Solana Beach, CA 92075
Ticket Prices: Start at $49.00
Web: nothrcoastrep.org
Photo: Aaron Rumley

On another more somber note, one of the things I have been dreading to do these last few days is saying goodbye and Shalom to my dear friend Charlene.

It has to have been over thirty years ago we met when we were both young and gay and full of energy, running around to theatre as ‘critics’, she for a local newspaper, my late husband and I for the Jewish Press.

Later we shared and exchanged stories, rode to theatre together, commenting on just nothing, comparing bone replacement surgeries and some long time ago forgotten family secrets. We were easy to laugh yet we both experienced heartbreak.

I always marveled at her creativity and wonderful writing style, her bright and colorful dress, her love of music her passion to put into print and song poems about her beloved daughter, Laura.

Her sojourn to take herself off to Santa Fe and places north to visit her newest granddaughter were always reported back in glowing terms.  And her seagoing voyage with Laura must have been a tonic to her soul.

Her charm and always smile upon greeting at the theatre, my house for meetings, or just sitting around chewing the fat, having lunch, sharing looks, eyebrows raised in non verbal conversation and on and on, she was always there.

Her uncanny eye for a story was always preceeded by, “I feel an essay coming on.” We chuckled as she pulled out her pen and notebook and made a few notes.

And then the fall.

After too long suffering the inability to express herself with the very words that were the essence of her life, Charlene was finally able to break out of the chains that held her captive in body and mind, but stubborn as she was, kept her spirit.

Her unfortunate fall some months ago left her without those tools she held dear. Even though we were able to communicate during our visits, I always left her side with kiss, a heavy heart and tears.   

Shalom my friend. While I’ll miss your physical presence you will always be by my side at the theatre. c~


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