He’s wrapped too tight and she’s not wrapped at all. “Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park” opened at the Camelot Theatre last week and is a painful collision of 1950s and 1960s cultural values.
Paul Bratter is a young lawyer eager to make his bones in his new firm. His bride is Corie, a willful and exuberant blonde. After a six-day honeymoon in a posh, uptown hotel, they settle into a one-room, sixth-floor Greenwich Village walkup with bad plumbing. That’s when reality hits the fan. Distrust, small deceits, poor judgment, selfishness and alcohol lead to the newlywed’s first fight and it is a doozy.
Adam Kilgore plays Paul in the Camelot production, a comfort-loving, rule-abiding, properly dressed and upwardly mobile man. He flattens his tie nightly between the pages of a massive dictionary and drinks Scotch as a modern man should. Kilgore was rightly cast in the role and even looks a bit like Robert Redford, who played Paul in the 1963 Broadway premiere.
Jess Mengel, in a headband holding back her bouffant page-boy flip, stretchy stirrup pants and ankle boots, is an utterly period Corie — a well-bred Jersey girl thrilled to escape to the city where she finds freedom and excitement, her fluid body ready for love. When Corie is disappointed at Paul’s focus on work, it is Mengel’s lusty lungs that shriek in anger, deafening on stage and off. Hopefully some shrieks were pre-recorded to save Mengel’s voice.
Ethel Banks, Corie’s very proper but sexually frustrated matron mother, is played by Linda Otto. Otto is just darling in her furs, heels and Toni Home Permanent, and as Ethel, is adorable in a Nembutal and martini fog.
Ethel’s “Barefoot” counterpart is Victor Velasco, played by Sean Warren, who is convincingly bohemian, his Armenian prevarication exotic and worldly. Warren’s role as Victor is to expose the others to adventure: fermented fish balls, Staten Island, Greek dancing and ouzo. Ouzo puts Ethel right into Victor’s arms and bathrobe and Corie into ecstasy; at least until it’s clear that ouzo has put Paul into an ouzo-fueled snit that sends Corie screeching.
Alcohol features frequently in “Barefoot” and it’s not clear whether Neil Simon intended alcohol as a cautionary note or a ‘50s symbol of cool, a righteous release from conformity.
Bare feet, too, figure in the play, socks and shoes serving as an indication of control or abandon. Kilgore keeps his on almost the entire play, signaling Paul’s insistence on proper behavior. Mengel’s heels pound the boards when Corie is excited. Otto totters uncertainly in heels until Ethel puts on Victor’s huge slippers and finds grace. Warren is most charming in socks, when as Victor he breaks his toe playing gallant knight to Ethel’s blackout. When shoes are taken off, lost or discarded, so are the trappings of expected, proper behavior — communication becomes more direct and relationships more honest. The play’s title then becomes more meaningful, given that in “Barefoot in the Park,” the barefoot walks in the park are braved in subzero weather, suggesting that relationships must be tested and love proved.
“Barefoot in the Park” was Neil Simon’s longest running play. Often called a light, romantic comedy, today the production seems an uncomfortable look back. The year 1963 was a transitional time in American history, a time when women began to challenge traditional domestic roles, cultural values were shifting and the conflict in Vietnam became a war out of control. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published just months after “Barefoot” premiered, revealing that female discontent simmered just below the surface, soon to boil over into the second wave of the women’s movement.
“Barefoot’s” final scenes showcase forgiveness and compromise, the intended vision of Camelot’s co-director, Brianna Gowland. Corie acknowledges her need for her husband’s protection, someone who will tell her how much to spend, and Paul affirms his need for his wife’s love and care. All is well in their world.
But for those who were listening in 1963, “Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park” was a call to arms, a siren signal that times were changing.
The show runs through May 20; tickets can be obtained at 541-535-5250 or online at www.CamelotTheatre.org.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at firstname.lastname@example.org.