Saturday July 14, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- At the age of 47, Barney Cashman, the central character in Neil Simon’s "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" -- at Williamstown Theater Fes tival’s Nikos Stage in a smartly played and directed production -- has it all: a faithful marriage of 23 years to his high school sweetheart, three children, and a successful fish restaurant.

"The sum total of my existence is nice. I will go to my grave having led a nice life. Life must go on. But while it’s going on, shouldn’t it be better than just nice?" Barney asks rhetorically at one point. The answer that comes bouncing back big-time is "yes" and for Barney "yes" means having sex once, just once, with a woman other than his wife -- the only sexual partner he’s had in 23 years.

And so, this "nice" restaurateur sets out on his quixotic journey, first with a married wo man named Elaine Navazio (an inspired Susie Essman), who’s been there, done that and thoroughly enjoys being there and doing it again and again with different men in different places.

Barney also tempts fate with a 27-year old, weed smoking, hy per neurotic would-be singer-ac tress ,Bobbi Michele, and then, finally, with his wife’s good married friend, Jeannette (Heidi Schreck), who, by the time she arrives at Barney’s mother’s apartment (the unlikely setting for Barney’s would-be seductions, brilliantly designed by Alex ander Dodge), is in the throes of the mother of all depressions.


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Director Jessica Stone -- who proves with this production that her success with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" two years ago at Williamstown was no fluke -- has eliminated the play’s two intermissions. It’s a risky move especially with a middle section which, due entirely to Simon, very nearly brings down the whole production. But the effect of Stone’s move is to give "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" emotional continuity. The arc of Barney’s journey from manboyhood to manadulthood is more clearly shaped and defined. "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" here feels more of a whole rath er than three related one-acts.

The production begins like gangbusters as the hopelessly inexperienced, very nervous Barney (a very nearly perfect Brooks Ashmanskas) deals with the formidable, sarcastic Elaine, a role Essman wears as if it had been tailored just for her. Ash manskas and Essman work so well together. Their smooth or chestration of this opening scene gives Simon’s 1968 comedy unexpected freshness, insight and depth.

Ashmanskas and Bibb have a much tougher hill to climb in the play’s middle section as Bar ney is reduced to being straight man for a hopelessly neurotic young woman who, despite Bibb’s skill in playing her, wears out her welcome early.

Credit Schreck and Ashmans kas for recouping that lost ground in a final scene that is far better played than it is written.

Ashmanskas holds the center of this production with a performance that, for all its expansivess, is intimate in its detail.

Stone’s instincts serve playwright, actors and audience very well; very well indeed.