BY ALEC KERR
CONWAY DAILY SUN
M&D takes a funny trip to the “Park”
CONWAY – Just in time for Valentine’s Day, M&D Playhouse is presenting Neil Simon’s charming romantic comedy “Barefoot in the Park” at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, Thursday through Sunday for the next three weeks.
Real-life couple Zach Poster and Alicia Tirey star as Paul and Corie Bratter, newlyweds who, after a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel, move into a small fifth-floor (sixth, if you include the stoop) New York apartment with a hole in the skylight, no bathtub and dodgy heat.
“Barefoot in the Park” first debuted on Broadway in 1963, and later spawned a film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in 1967 and a short-lived TV series with an all black cast in 1970.
The play chronicles the first few days of Bratters’ life in their new apartment, including a disastrous dinner party in which Corie attempts to set up her single mother (Mary Bastoni) with Victor Velasco (Rob Owen), the kooky neighbor who lives in the attic. Paul and Corie have their marriage put to the test and begin to question if they rushed into it.
Simon is one of the great comic writers of American theater. As with Simon’s other works, “Barefoot in the Park” is peppered with sharp one-liners. In Simon’s world, everyone — including the telephone repairman (Grayson Smith) — is quick-witted and has excellent comic timing.
Simon’s work falls into two categories. There are those plays that despite being of a specific time, have a universal quality that keeps them fresh and vital. Then there are those that feel dated and can be difficult to sit through.
“Barefoot in the Park” largely falls in the former category with scenes that remain funny and relevant even 60 years later, but there are some jokes that clearly received big laughs in the 1960s and are now more likely to induce a wince or a groan.
Poster and Tirey’s real-world chemistry translates beautifully on stage. You can feel the love between them. Despite being the largest roles for both actors, they both feel like seasoned pros with a firm command of their characters.
Tirey captures Corie’s effervescent free spirit as she twirls around her unfurnished apartment full of optimism and enthusiasm for what lies ahead. She gets excited by the littlest things, like the simple act of having the phone line hooked up.
The more pragmatic Paul tries to put on a good face but only sees the flaws of the apartment and feels pressure to succeed during his first case as a lawyer. Poster nails Paul’s uptight, slightly neurotic nature but doesn’t over play the part. It is easy to make Paul an insufferable pessimist, but Poster finds the right balance in making his growing exasperation relatable rather than annoying.
In the best scene in the play, Paul and Corie have an argument that escalates to Corie wanting a divorce. By the end, neither really knows what they’re fighting about. The emotions of the scene feel authentic and the dynamic feels true. We have all had arguments that spin out of control, and under the direction of Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Poster and Tirey get that feeling absolutely right. It is a scene that is both funny and poignant.
The strongest aspect of Poster and Tirey together is that they make it clear that, in spite of — or perhaps because of — their character’s opposite personalities, they perfectly complement each other and make the other person better. This becomes clear in the hilarious climax with drunken Paul.
Bastoni and Owen have their own parallel opposites-attract love story, but with the roles reversed. Bastoni’s Ethel is the uptight, slightly overbearing mother and Owen’s Victor is the globetrotting adventurer. As with Poster and Tirey, Bastoni and Owen have a pleasant, easy chemistry,
These are both big characters and it would be easy to slip into caricature, but Bastoni and Owen keep the characters grounded while not being afraid to go for an over-the-top moment.
Ethel is more reserved than her daughter, but Bastoni is able to make it clear where Ethel’s daughter gets her optimism from. When Bastoni first walks into the unfurnished apartment she does a nice job of hiding her disappointment and trying to stay positive and supportive.
In her director notes, Weisberg discusses the recent loss of her mother and how important the mother-daughter relationship in “Barefoot in the Park” was to her, and that comes across in the performances.
Smith’s role as Harry Pepper, the telephone repairman, is small but Smith makes the most of it. He has the play’s first scene with Tirey, and their comedic banter helps set the tone and pace of the show. Smith returns later in the play, and it’s a welcomed return. His performance makes you wish we saw more of Harry.
With an exquisite costume design by Patty Hibbert and a believable apartment set by Deb Jasien, “Barefoot in the Park” is an ideal balance of comedy and romance and will make for a lovely night out with your sweetheart.
For more information or tickets, go to mdplayhouse.com or call (603) 733-5275.