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'Barefoot in the Park' at American Stage reminds us that it's time for new shoes

Gavin Hawk as the husband dresses in the drab colors of a 1950s businessman, while Samantha McKinnon Brown brightens the stage.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Gavin Hawk as the husband dresses in the drab colors of a 1950s businessman, while Samantha McKinnon Brown brightens the stage.

It's been nearly 50 years since Barefoot in the Park, one of Neil Simon's first stage hits, appeared on Broadway. It has not aged well.

Stylistically and substantively, Barefoot is an anachronism. Its situations have become trite and its observations are superficial.

American Stage appropriately offers Barefoot in the Park as a period piece, a peek into a past in which Princess phones were the latest technology, couples took bossa nova lessons and Manhattan apartments rented for $125 a month.

The premise, as almost everyone knows, is that newlyweds have started their marriage in a decrepit apartment. The vivacious young bride finds it romantically bohemian; hubby considers it deplorable and grouses about everything in it, including his wife. Eventually their differences threaten their week-old marriage.

If you want to get analytical — perhaps more analytical than you're meant to — you could see this as an examination of what turned out to be transitional year in American culture. It's set in 1964 (a year after the play actually opened on Broadway). The husband, played by Gavin Hawk, is costumed in the drab colors of the 1950s businessman. His wife (Samantha McKinnon Brown) dresses in the Laugh-In oranges and yellows of the post-Beatles '60s. He's the end of one era; she's the beginning of another.

That approach adds some sociological depth to the play, but it can't help with a central problem: Barefoot in the Park may have been one of the biggest hits on Broadway in the 1960s, but it's just not that funny. Sure, it's cute and it's sweet. But it offers chuckles, at best, and no laughs. Certainly not one of Simon's better works.

A central joke, repeated ad nauseam, is that the young couple has moved into a sixth-floor walk-up, and people who come to the apartment are out of breath when they get there and an extended conversation about the stairs follows.

It's not funny the first time, it's annoying the second and it's maddening the third and fourth and fifth. Besides, only three of the play's five characters seem to have any problem with stairs. They're almost unmanageable for the groom, his mother-in-law and the telephone repairman, but the bride and the 57-year-old upstairs neighbor can handle them easily.

Another problem is the resolution, in which the husband learns to loosen up and have fun by getting rip-roaring drunk and climbing onto the ledge outside the apartment.

Still, there's a lot to like in this production, starting with the performances of Hawk, Richard Coppinger as the repairmen and Brian Webb Russell as the lusty upstairs neighbor. Hawk is appealing even though his character isn't, Coppinger lights up the stage with his minor character, and Russell is simply delightful as an eccentric who serves as a catalyst for the other characters' epiphanies.

Brown has a great look for the role (especially with the combination beehive and That Girl hairdo she sports), and her energy is perfect. But she tends to shout rather than project, so her delivery grows wearisome. Nikki Savitt, as the bride's mother, is overly shrill at first, but her performance softens as the play progresses.

Director John O'Connell works his actors with a natural fluidity. Tom Hansen's set and Adrin Erra Puente's costumes are marvelous and evocative, and T. Scott Wooten's sound design (with cinematic underscoring at the beginning of each of the three acts) adds a nice touch.

The play is slight but the production's strong. In the end, it's a pleasant piece of theater, neither regrettable nor memorable.

If you go

. WHEN: "Barefoot in the Park," through Sept. 25. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

. WHERE: American Stage, St. Petersburg.

. TICKETS: $29-$50, with $10 student rush tickets a half-hour before curtain. Pay what you can Tuesday, Aug. 17 and 24, Sept. 7 and 21.

. INFORMATION: (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

Note: Tonight's performance has been canceled because of the death

of a family member of one of the cast members.

'Barefoot in the Park' at American Stage reminds us that it's time for new shoes 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:44pm]
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