It's the late 1960s, the sexual revolution is cresting, and 51-year-old, faithfully married, charming-but-naive Manhattan restaurateur Barney Cashman feels that life is passing him by. And he's just not going to let that happen.
That's the setup for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Neil Simon's sometimes poignant 1969 comedy about life, love, sex and, yes, death — or the dread of death — playing weekends through Oct. 18 at Jimmy Ferraro's Studio Theatre in New Port Richey.
Red Hot has all of the expected Neil Simon zingers. But there are deeper emotions at play between the banter, and it's worth listening carefully to catch it all. The outstanding four-member cast does a fine job creating believable and understandable characters who convey the nuances Simon reaches for in this play.
Greg Thompson plays Barney, a role he first played at Stageworks in Tampa in the spring, and he's a wonder as the quintessential middle-aged man trying to cope with life and thoughts of his own mortality. Barney decides what he needs is one last, grand, never-to-be-forgotten, once-in-a-lifetime love affair to tide him over until he meets the Grim Reaper. He works up his courage, buys two nice cocktail glasses at Bloomingdale's, a bottle of J&B whiskey, some cologne to put on his hands to disguise the fact that he spends his days opening oysters at his restaurant, and makes his move on one of his frequent clients.
They're to meet at his mom's midtown studio apartment, and it's a mark of his naivety that he thinks he can bring about a perfect love affair between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m. sharp, when his mom will be home from her volunteer work at nearby Mount Sinai Hospital.
His targeted love turns out to be one Elaine Navazio (Elizabeth Bell), a tough-talking, cynical, nicotine-addicted married woman who long ago joined the sexual revolution, has had numerous sexual encounters and intends to have many more, and only wants a quick, physical fling with Barney. Elaine has little patience for or understanding of Barney's romanticizing of the encounter, though Bell makes her into a somewhat sympathetic character with terrific facial and physical moves.
It doesn't work out as Barney hoped, and he swears off love affairs forever — or at least until acts 2 and 3, when he tries, tries again.
First, it's with Bobbi Michele (a lively Sara DelBeato), an aspiring singer half his age, but with a zillion times his sexual experience — or so she would have him believe — each man nuttier and/or more violent than the one before. Bobbi bounces from emotion to emotion, from paranoia to paranoia, eventually zoning out in true '60s fashion on a good joint, which she shares with a soon-mellow Barney.
Their scene has some puzzling anachronisms, when Bobbi talks about being on the Jimmy Fallon show during the years that Johnny Carson was the show's host, mentions actor Brad Pitt at a time when he would have been 6 years old and refers to rock group Maroon 5, which didn't form until 1994.
The costumes, set and props, including that harvest gold Princess phone with its long cord, make it clear that this is indeed the 1960s.
Barney's third try at love is Jeanette Fisher (Suzanne Ruley), his wife's dowdy best friend and the wife of Barney's best friend, Mel. Jeanette is the original Debbie Downer, filled with depression and Xanax because of her husband's suspected infidelity. It's apparent this isn't going to be Barney's big fling, but their conversation is the most touching of the play and goes for authenticity in addition to laughs. It works because of the authenticity of Thompson and Ruley, who bring multiple dimensions to their characters, making them real and genuinely likable.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers is recommended for mature audiences and is about 2 1/2 hours long, including two intermissions.