Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, directed by Joe Eriole, is a production carried by brilliant acting and thorough character work. The play premiered on Broadway in 1963, and the play’s writing doesn’t entirely withstand the test of time– a true challenge for modern audiences and especially for modern actors. However, this cast meets the challenge head on: they take the trope-ridden characters the play gives them and return full, well rounded people that a 2020 audience can not only relate to, but can root for.
The play centers around young newly-weds Corie and Paul, who are in the tumultuous process of moving into their first apartment together after six blissful days of marriage. Their marriage is a classic example of opposites attracting: Corie is spontaneous, whimsical, and romantic, while Paul is ambitious and practical. Their apartment is tiny, cold, and on the sixth floor–facts which Paul can’t help but notice–but Corie sees it as an opportunity to make a home that’s all their own.
It would be very easy for an actor to get lost in the allegory of these characters, but Lauren Silverman and Wilhelm Anderson go above and beyond to bring modern awareness, drive, and humor to the piece. Anderson doesn’t allow Paul to be an unfeeling 1960s businessman—he’s as wryly funny as he is practical, and it’s clear that he’s genuinely trying to support Corie even when he’s unable to share her enthusiasm. Equally adept in thoroughness of character is Silverman. Silverman’s Corie is fun, genuine, and inspiring in her passionate optimism. She’s not ridiculous or deluded—when she says she loves her tiny, bare-bones apartment, she truly does. Her enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but smile with her; when the apartment is finally furnished and we watch her putting her finishing touches on the decorations, you share her sense of pride. Corie’s zeal for life is palpable, and only withered by a desire for validation from one person—her mother.
Laurel Riley-Brown is immediately charming as Mrs. Banks; although she is a timid, reserved counterpoint to Corie, she is endlessly supportive of her daughter nonetheless. She expertly toes the line between wanting to be involved in her daughter’s life and finally letting her go. Similarly, Corie seems to grapple with wanting distance from Mrs. Banks, while at the same time wanting to meddle in her affairs. This meddling comes in the form of Corie trying to set her mother up on a blind date with her eccentric upstairs neighbor, Mr. Velasco.
Dan Anderson’s Mr. Velasco is fun and impressively genuine in his eccentricity; the things he says and does are completely bonkers, yet Anderson says and does them with such conviction it’s hard not to be charmed by his quirks. A romance between Mr. Velasco and Mrs. Banks is one of the play’s strained writing moments—Corie’s reasoning is that Mrs. Banks is alone and thus should desire companionship, and Mr. Velasco is, well, a person. Yet Anderson is so utterly entrenched in his character that it’s believable that the reticent, careful Mrs. Banks might find herself unexpectedly smitten with him.
One of the mysteries of the play is Corie’s complicated relationship with her widowed mother Mrs. Banks – she is desperate to please her mother, which implies that her mother is difficult to please; yet when we meet Mrs. Banks, she’s perfectly amiable and actually seems desperate herself to show Corie how much she supports her. Corie and Mrs. Banks seem to think that they’re very different from one another, yet it’s clear from their shared affinity for well-meant meddling that they’re far more alike than different. There are even moments in the production in which Laurel Riley-Brown and Lauren Silverman use matching mannerisms—it’s unclear if this was a clever, subtle choice or a happy accident, but the impact is the same: their chemistry is so true that one could believe the two were related.
This production leans into the similarities between its supposedly ‘opposite’ characters, and it’s a smart choice—because the tensions found between characters’ similarities is significantly more emotional than those found between their differences. This is true of the relationship between Corie and her mother, and even more apparent between Corie and Paul.
The play paints Corie and Paul as opposites, yet Silverman and Anderson present their characters as equals in passion and drive; they’re both opinionated, stubborn, and desperately in love. Playing these characters as similar and truly devoted to one another makes it significantly more heartbreaking when they stumble into an explosive fight.
The subtle decline of their relationship is a result of brilliant acting and stellar directing. At the beginning, the two are wholly smitten with each other, with only one or two points of tension. But as the play progresses, we slowly see animosity creep in, in which the earlier minor qualms they have with one another become more and more insurmountable. It’s heartbreaking because it’s an accurate depiction of the challenges faced in young relationships—problems that were easily swept under the rug during the honeymoon phases’ whirlwind of love and lust become chasms between them once the dust settles. While the show is overall a fun, light romp, the audience is hit hard by one heavy scene in which Paul and Corie have their first long, painful fight and ultimately decide to get divorced. It hurts especially because the audience can so clearly see that they love and care for each other, and neither wants to be having the fight—they keep each trying to leave and are dragged back into the fray by the other. The production is so strong because it knows at its core that this is a fun romantic comedy, yet it isn’t afraid to delve into true emotion when it’s called for. This creates a beautiful contrast that leaves the audience delighted then Corie and Paul, inevitably, fall back in love.
Clove Creek’s production of Barefoot in the Park is a smart, well-acted take on a rather dated play. The production knows the writing’s shortcomings—acknowledging the play’s problematic aspects directly in the director’s note—and to remedy this, it does everything it can to bring the charm of its characters to the forefront. It’s impossible to dislike any of the characters, between our two sets of lovers in Corie and Paul and Mrs. Banks and Mr. Velasco, and Denis Silvestri as a beleaguered telephone repairman. Silvestri holds his own as a quiet source of situational comedy and well rounds out this accomplished cast. This production is a fun, light but smart romp, and an enjoyable evening for anyone—in love, out of love, or anywhere in between.