WILLIAMSTOWN -- The way director Jessica Stone sees it, Neil Simon's, "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" is a comedy that often joins with pathos. Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays the leading role of Barney Cashman in Stone's production, which officially opens a two-week run in Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage tonight at 7:30, agrees.
Cashman is a decent, nice, a middle-age family man with a wife and three kids and owns and manages a popular fish market and restaurant. By any standard, he leads a comfortable, successful life. It's enough, Barney says. But enough isn't enough for Barney. So, he attempts to have an affair, first with a customer named Elaine Navazio; then with an attractive, if somewhat ditzy, 27-year-old named Bobbi Michele; and finally with Jeanette, who, along with her husband, has been a good friend of Barney and his wife, Thelma, for 12 years.
"There you are. You feel in the groove of your life and you feel there must be something else, something more. The answer for most heterosexual men is a woman, an ‘other' woman," Ashmanskas said during a lunchtime interview at Williamstown Elementary School where the company (Stone, Ashmanskas, Susie Essman as Elaine, Leslie Bibb as Bobbi and Heidi Schreck as Jeannette) was rehearsing.
"The nice thing here is that after all these efforts to have an affair, all of them in his mother's apartment, by the way, Barney comes to realize that nice not only is enough, it's to be coveted."
A first at Williamstown
"Last of the Red Hot Lovers" is the first Neil Simon play to be done at Williamstown in its 58-year history.
"I'm interested in finding new ways into classics," Jenny Gersten said in an interview several weeks ago, before the opening of her second season as artistic director of the Tony Award-winning regional theater. "It doesn't have to be a classic play. It can be a classic story.
"We've never celebrated Neil Simon as a dramatist at the festival. I think this play has real pathos."
"Last of the red Hot Lovers" is only the second show Stone has directed.
" (It's) been on my director's wish list, the one people said I should make up after my success with ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' (her directing debut two summers ago at Williamstown)," Stone said during the lunch-break interview.
"I fell in love with the play when I read it. Reading it disspelled my fears. I thought it would be one of those ‘thousand oneliners' plays Simon is capable of writing.
"Well," Stone said, "it's really a beautiful story about a man who's lived a highly functional, successful life but that's not enough."
"Many of us grew up at a time when Simon was regarded as ‘that funny guy,' " Ashmanskas said. "People who have seen our rehearsals and (the) reading we did for Jenny were all taken by its depth."
Partly because of the film, partly because of the popular television series, "The Odd Couple" is perhaps Simon's defining work. And yet, for all its charms, Stone says, "I don't think it goes to the depths of ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers.'
"The third act, especially, which involves Barney's attempt to seduce Jeannette, took me by surprise at how painful it is."
Indeed, it is Simon's blend of pain and wit, pathos and humor that provides the biggest challenge for Stone.
"This is really a coming-of-age play, a middle-age coming of age," Stone said. "I think of the first act as the toddler reaching for the switch; the second act as acting out; the third act as coming to terms as Barney realizes that this is it -- family, friendship.
"As a director, I have to keep all that in balance and remember that these acts, these life stages are all the same play.
"There's not much difference between comedy and tragedy," Stone added. "The pain is all the same. It's just how you cover it up."
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What: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" by Neil Simon
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
When: Tonight-July 22. Eves.: Tue.-Thu. 7:30; Fri., Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu., Sun. 2; Sat. 3:30
Where: Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
How: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org