When Times-Picayune chief critic Frank Gagnard retired after 44 years as a newspaperman -- most of them spent covering the arts -- I couldn't quite believe it. "Aren't you going to miss it?" I asked. And Gagnard replied, "I've just reviewed my third 'La Boheme' this year. If I never see another 'La Boheme,' I'll die a happy man."
I have no idea how many productions of "Barefoot in the Park" I've seen over the years: professional productions (one made memorable by Sylvia Sidney as the mother, one of the funniest actresses I've ever interviewed), community theater, dinner theater, you name it.
"Barefoot in the Park" has its place in theater history. As Neil Simon's second play, it was a huge hit that put him on the theater and movie map, sent young leading man Robert Redford and Louisiana State University grad Elizabeth Ashley straight to Hollywood and gave Mildred Natwick one of her best roles. It's also a favorite of the playwright's, since it's based on his early life with his first wife.
But it's essentially a thin comedy, very much of its era (1963), with a Princess phone a major prop and mentions of the late, late show, the bossa nova, Toni home permanents and the Polaroid camera.
If a theater feels it must do "Barefoot" -- even though it just flopped on Broadway with an all-star cast -- it should either restrain the urge or tackle it the way director Gary Rucker has at Rivertown Repertory Theatre: in period, with a good cast, Chad Talkington's amusingly garish '60s set and Linda Fried's brightly colored costumes from Petula Clark's time-capsule closet.
The plot involves Corey and Paul Bratter, New York newlyweds moving into a fifth-floor walk-up apartment, engendering a running gag of exhausted arrivals and a nice line for Corey's mother: "When you were a little girl and said you wanted to live on the moon, I thought you were joking."
Actual couple Mark Fouchi and Kelly Fouchi make attractive, immature young marrieds; she's perky and he's exasperated. Kathy Taaffe is Corey's mother, whose character has more levels to play, which Taaffe handles engagingly. George Sanchez is colorfully cosmopolitan as the aging bon vivant, while Reggie Hendry provides a lively character turn as the telephone repairman, and Phil Pisciotta completes the cast as a delivery man.
Kooky, free-spirited Corey fears that the man she has married is an uptight stuffed shirt (the title is a metaphor for the kind of spontaneous behavior of which she believes Paul incapable). The role-reversal sub-plot finds Corey's proper mother letting go with a middle-aged Lothario.
It's an amiable, pleasant contrivance, with a fair amount of lines that remain laugh-out-loud funny and sequences that hint at Simon-to-come, such as Corey and her mother simultaneously pouring their hearts out, neither listening to the other.
Rucker directs in appropriately lively sitcom style, and there's a great pre-show intermission mix of '60s pop hits -- the Beatles, Supremes, Herb Alpert, Dionne Warwick -- that puts you in a "Feelin' Groovy" good mood.
I enjoyed "Barefoot in the Park," but don't feel the need to ever see it again. Gagnard, I understand you now.
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Theater critic David Cuthbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3468.