Maybe what Corie Bratter needs is a job.
She’s adorable to the edge of irresistibility. She’s goofy in love with her brand-new husband Paul, a very presentable young attorney. She vibrates with eager anticipation at the adventures awaiting her in adult life and she charms totally anybody who crosses her path.
What she doesn’t have – or at least doesn’t discuss – is a long and varied list including education, siblings, ambition, beliefs, survival skills, children, ideas and, well, a purpose in life.
How could we all have been so delighted with her back in 1963, when Nell Simon introduced her to Broadway as the centerpiece of Barefoot in the Park, the second in the series of sentimental comedies that made him a millionaire? She wasn’t the classic non-threatening ditzy waif, but instead a sparkling standard of youth and feminine beauty, one from whom everybody else wanted notice, approval and validation.
The Old Globe Theatre is showing, in a tight, eager production staged by Jessica Stone, one set of reasons why the comedy worked so well back then: Simon, becoming a master playwright with formidable command of storytelling tools honed in the grind of early television comedy, simply ignored inconvenient realities and concentrated instead on life as a dream.
Somewhere, people were dying in nasty little wars that never seemed to end but there in Manhattan’s East 40s, everyone knew their place and hardships meant little more than six flights of stairs or cranky steam heat.
I don’t remember any trouble in recognizing these people. They all seemed like people I knew, except of course for Victor Velasco, the flamboyant foreigner who lived in the attic and moved in a swirl of mysterious innuendo. He made the old brownstone even more exotic that the seven people crammed into Apartment 3C or the unseen occupant of 4D, who left no trace except the nine empty tuna-fish cans outside the door every morning. Which sets up a joke by Paul:
“A big cat with a can opener?”
And that, of course, is what the play is about: the gags.
Simon’s standard method was to set up a gag – after a night on the town with Velasco, drinking ouzo, he warns everybody they won’t be able to make a fist for three days – and then milk it as needed while the audience laughs along knowingly. A few of these carefully applied plus a cute girl showing a chaste bit of skin, a big-shot made uncomfortable before order is restored, a couple of drunk scenes and…there’s your hit.
Today, in the era of pussy caps and glass ceilings, Corie at home all day gushing makes her either boring or imaginary. So why such an energetic revival of this play?
My guess is some combination of nostalgia and frustration. There really was a time not so long ago when “hell” was still a shocking word and New York lawyers lived in East Side apartments for $125 a month. How sweet.
When comedies came without an issue or a cause or a savage irony or a fart joke. When plays could be enjoyed casually for their efficient construction and the handsome cartoon people they introduced.
If so, then the Globe has the right idea: Go to the master, pick a simple example and find skilled people to present it.
Mike Nichols directed the original production in a leisurely, self-confident fashion that invited everybody to chuckle along at an idealized everyday. Recognizing how far that everyday has evolved, Jessica Stone has tightened the pace and shifted the emphasis (without changing any words I could notice) to make these just simpler, not different, versions of selected stock characters from our own today. It shouldn’t be necessary to thank her for the lack of knowing winks at quaint anachronisms but such things are a temptation and have been known to turn up even at the Globe.
Kerry Bishe’ is bright, light and supple as a Corie who obviously spends some of that free time at the gym. She wields her emotions like a kung fu master firing a laser. Chris Lowell as Paul, her most frequent and adoring target, has every reason to be smug in his privileged birthright but still manages to flail with conviction. And the Victor Velasco of Jere Burns is an invigorating express of enthusiasm that could keep even a soggy comedy smoldering.
Mia Dillion, as Corie’s mom from the suburbs, knits together the whole bouncy fabric as a sort of audience surrogate who ends up having more potential fun than anybody else. Dillion is able to juggle daughter-love, grandchildren-desire and apprehension with a more believable brightness than usual.
The Tobin Ost setting has some surprises, which won’t be revealed here, but also some flaws. It’s daunting to cram so many separate interiors onto an arena stage like the Globe’s White Theatre, but why does the bathroom deserve such prominence, especially since it seems unequipped with even an imaginary door? And where do these people sit down to eat? Also, I wish Amanda Zieve’s lighting design had done more with that notorious skylight.
The David Israel Reynoso costumes tread, mostly with success, a careful line between exact period replicas and contemporary vernacular. Some of the same approach works fairly well with the soundtrack, a jagged, cutesy assortment of stuff like “Make Someone Happy” and “Moon River” gathered by Lindsay Jones.
From the perspective of one who has seen and reviewed this play at least a dozen times over a half-century, beginning with the original production in Broadway, I can say with some authority that this version assembled by the Old Globe, is as close to authentic and respectful as it needs to be.
Just leave reality outside.
(Continues in the Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 2, 2018.)