Comfy Creation

LTW brings Tucson yet another Neil Simon play, this time the enjoyable 'Red Hot Lovers'

I'm trying very, very hard not to begin this review with a disgusting pun about how Barney, the owner of a fish restaurant, easily opens dozens of clams every day but when he tries to engage women in extramarital affairs ... well, never mind. That's a bit too crude of a joke to apply to Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which, despite revolving around the exploits of a would-be Lothario in the swinging '60s, ends up with a very old-fashioned moral about kindness and decency.

Sliding Tucson's theater scene another production closer to All Simon All the Time, Live Theatre Workshop opened Neil Simon's 1969 opus last weekend. In his notes in the program, director Chuck Rankin not only admits Simon's stylistic links to TV sitcoms; he celebrates them. Rankin is obviously aware of Simon's limits, but he's out to make the most of the material, and luckily, this is one of the better light efforts of a good playwright who too often settles for being glib and slick.

Barney is a successful, dutiful, entirely ordinary middle-aged man in a satisfactory marriage, but he has begun to suspect he has missed out on something, especially as he observes the progress of the sexual revolution. Although love may now be free, lunch is not, at least not in Barney's restaurant, where even a prospective paramour must pick up her own tab. That's how locked into routine and convention Barney is.

Barney's mother spends a day or two every week volunteering at a hospital, and this provides Barney with a potential love nest, as long as he leaves every sofa cushion in its proper place so his eagle-eyed mom won't suspect anything. (You can tell exactly how fussy she is from Rankin's set, complete with plastic-sheeted couch.) So: Barney has the apartment, a bottle of Scotch, two new glasses from Bloomingdale's (so he won't dirty any of mom's glassware) ... all he needs is a willing partner.

In the first act, with much trepidation, he has an assignation with Elaine, an unsentimental serial adulteress he meets in his restaurant. This is Simon at his lightweight best, with snappy dialog (funny stuff that for once does not rely on strings of gratuitous one-liners) between two characters of little complexity. Eventually, Barney has a brief monolog explaining why--despite his untroubled marriage, his "nice" life and his constitutional disinclination to play the field--he now finds it necessary to douse his fishy fingers in after-shave and breath spray and try his hand at seduction. This could be an unbearably whiny scene, but Jeremy Thompson, who is very good at low-key pathos, makes it Barney's most touching moment.

And then, to Simon's great credit, steely Elaine (played with amused cynicism by Jodi Rankin) puts Barney in his place with some hard, straight talk. The play could end quite satisfactorily here, after about 45 minutes, but Simon stretches it into a second act in which Barney fails at two further conquests. The first of these involves a young blonde sexpot, Bobbi (Missie Scheffman), who essentially has the scene to herself in a dotty crescendo of reefer-aided paranoia. The other introduces a friend of Barney's wife, who has come on to him at a tipsy dinner party. Jeanette is her name, and she's played by Nell Summers, with the slack mouth and sloping shoulders of the clinically depressed. Jeanette, it turns out, is just too miserable to have an affair; her therapist has calculated that she is happy with only 8.2 percent of her life, and fooling around with her best friend's husband is definitely not improving her happiness quotient.

Here's where Simon gives in to his middlebrow, middle-class instincts and opts for a resolution as conventional as anything in Barney's dull, little life. It must certainly have been a comfort to Broadway tourists circa 1970 who, like Barney, were wondering if they were missing out on the sexual revolution but weren't reckless enough to give it a try. Any British satirist of the period could have turned this into a much sharper sex farce; Simon gives us something safely rounded and nicely padded, a play that turns out to be quite comfy for any audience to slip into.

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