The premise of a mismatched newlywed couple moving into an un-ideal apartment and learning to live together remains an ageless source of humor in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”
In its 50th anniversary touring production, the Montana Repertory Theatre pays loving homage to the witty, rapid-fire dialogue and levity in the script, now more than a half-century old itself.
The romantic comedy, imbued with early 1960s optimism, is technically a period piece, but the production’s warmth is a welcome throwback to a time when romantic comedies relied on cleverness over raunch.
The three-act play is set in a fifth-floor walkup in New York City, where the impulsive and creative Corie (Whitney Miller) has just moved in with her husband Paul (Hunter Hash), a fledgling attorney and her polar opposite in demeanor.
Simon’s contrasting odd couple are Victor Velasco, a cosmopolitan European neighbor, and Corie’s mother, Mrs. Banks (Laurie Dawn), who’s timid and worry-prone to a fault.
Since its 1963 premiere, some things have not changed, which works in the production's favor. The 20-something couple's first apartment is drafty, has malfunctioning heat, inadequate bedroom space and other quirks you must live with when renting on a budget. In their case, it's in the four figures with a decimal ($75 and change).
Most anyone who’s rented in the Rep's home base can attest that this is a timeless theme and perennial problem.
The scenic design by Joey Sarno and the costumes by M. L. Hart expertly recreate the early 1960s, from the orange-and-beige heavy palette to the period clothing.
For its annual tours, the Rep casts a mix of professional equity actors and UM students. This year, the Rep's artistic director, Greg Johnson, took a bit of a risk and cast two UM theater undergraduates in the lead roles. It's likely that they're as young or younger than their characters, and both rise to the challenge of leading a professional production.
As Corie, Miller plays up her character's vivaciousness and her naivete without inflating her into a caricature. It's easy to see how the others fall for her vitality but often grow flabbergasted by its untempered pace.
Hash adapts a bit of the now bygone mid-Atlantic accent to emphasize Paul's seriousness. Here is a man who knows what kind of tie Oliver Wendell Holmes wore and Hash renders him as a likeable but uptight man who, in the parlance of the times, takes himself seriously as a "college graduate."
Mostly important, they deliver Simon's banter with verve. The speed and ingenuity of his often deadpan lines is a marvel: Characters unfurl zingers in the middle of sentences at a remarkable pace. A dingy building isn't just a dingy building, it's "a middle-income prison camp." Mrs. Bates disingenuously tells Corrie she’s impressed with the apartment, given that it's a "nice, large room."
Audiences may recognize Kuntz, one of the equity actors, from his lead role in the 2015 Rep production of “The Great Gatsby.” Where the wealthy Jay Gatsby drew people in through opaque mystery, Kuntz envisions Mr. Velasco as an eccentric who wins strangers over through sheer charisma and volume.
Velasco's initial come-ons are by modern standards, should we say, somewhat aggressive. The past being the unchangeable past, the Rep seems to have adapted Corie and Mrs. Bates' responses in kind. After one particular comment from Velasco, Dawn pauses a beat and lets out a hilariously loud and panicked "Ha!" that drew laughs from the audience. It's played as cringe humor before its time.
Dawn, an equity cast member from last year’s “All My Sons,” exudes anxiety to great effect. Colton Swibold, another Rep regular, provides intermittent comic relief as a telephone repair man bedeviled by those flights of stairs.
In the latter half, when the optimistic tone shifts to conflict and those verbal darts take a darker turn, the cast fluidly shift moods as the mismatched pairs learn how to adapt for the sake of living together.
Requisite conflict aside, the Rep’s “Barefoot in the Park” is a remarkably optimistic production, and an unexpected but fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of a company best known for a more serious-minded signature play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”