By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
I once spent a year in Rome living on what I called the fourth floor of a three-story building. The elevator went to three and I had to walk up to my place. I always suspected that fourth floor was illegal.
The bathroom door opened onto the kitchen stove, the living room was the size of a postage stamp, and the bedroom was across the hall.
But I had a wrap-around balcony, and since the place was not far from the Vatican, I could “see” it if I looked in that direction and knew the landmark was there.
Ah, those were the days. So I can identify a bit with the excitement of Corie Bratter (Kerry Bishe) as she steps into her first New York apartment as a married woman in playwright Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”
This is a real fifth-floor walkup on the East Side that shows signs of wear, but no sign of furniture yet. It has a microscopic kitchen, an even smaller bathroom with no tub, and a bedroom closet that you can only get to if you crawl over the bed (I’ve had hotel rooms like that). Oh, and a skylight with a broken pane so you can have your own falling snow in the winter.
But hey, Corie is young, pretty, inexhaustibly upbeat, and crazy in love with up-and-coming lawyer Paul (Chris Lowell) so what else matters? The new apartment is romantic and will be “beautiful” when the furniture arrives.
As Corie basks in the afterglow of the honeymoon week at the Plaza Hotel and ponders future furniture placement, the telephone man (Jake Millgard) staggers up the stairs, gasping for breath and nearly passing out from the exertion. This will become one of the show’s running jokes.
Corie’s plans start to go awry with the next arrival — not the furniture delivery man, but her new husband Paul. He will not only arrive exhausted but be expected to “love” the apartment — which he hasn’t seen yet — in all its unfurnished nakedness.
Paul is a buttoned-down, newly minted attorney, not the freewheeling and go-with-the-flow type who would walk barefoot in the park (and even the snow) like Corie. He intends to be rich and important but isn’t yet.
Still, he’s a bit disappointed at what this apartment lacks. And he’s in court tomorrow with his first case and has prep work to do. These are elements that will inevitably lead to newlywed arguments and lots of clever one-liners.
But there are other characters as well. Corie’s mother, Mrs. Ethel Banks (Mia Dillon), for example, “drops in” — gasping for air like everyone else who climbs up the stairs — bearing gifts for her daughter. Mrs. Banks is a widow living alone in the outer reaches of New Jersey; Corie later decides to find a love interest for her single mother.
Then there’s Victor Velasco (Jere Burns) — a flamboyant, old (well, 58) suave man who lives in the attic. Velasco is full of Old World charm and manipulation, also known as “the Bluebeard of 48th Street.”
Remember that this production is the work of early Neil Simon — his second Broadway hit — written in the early ’60s. The play is also a product of its time, so don’t be shocked that the adorable Corie is apparently planning on a life of “Being Married.” Period. Unlike most wives today, she doesn’t have to work, giving her time to worry about things like the beauty of the not-yet-delivered furniture and whether or not Paul wants to walk barefoot in the park.
Lowell is convincing as Corie’s stodgy but solid groom Paul, who keeps finding things about this apartment that he doesn’t like much until he finally explodes in the couple’s first real fight in the third act.
Bishé and Lowell are fine foils for each other, playing the clichéd pair — a cute bride and a rather dull groom — who can both produce a funny one-liner at will.
Dillon’s Mrs. Banks is amusing as Corie’s dithery mom, trying to find Corie’s new place as charming as her daughter keeps insisting it is. She and Burns’ outlandish Hungarian Victor Velasco also make quite a pair as well.
Jake Millgard’s phone repairman and John Garcia’s furniture delivery guy are equally funny.
Kudos also to the design crew, who crafted a play — originally written for a proscenium stage — that works in the round. Tobin Ost’s set is strange and amusing, fitting the plot just fine.
David Israel Reynoso created classic costumes that smartly fit but don’t limit the time frame. Lighting and sound are nicely handled by Amanda Zieve and Lindsay Jones, respectively.
“Barefoot in the Park” isn’t Simon’s best play, but the Globe gives us a fine production.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.