Barney Cashman is frumpy, lumpy, and awkward with women. And so is John Combs, the actor who plays him in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” Coincidence? I think not. Because if there is one thing that director Howard Teichman prides himself on, it’s his impeccable casting. And with “Lovers” he has, once again, scored a perfect 10.
Barney Cashman is the 53-year-old proprietor of a fish restaurant who spends his mornings shucking oysters and his afternoons trying to get the smell off his hands. He has been married to his high school sweetheart for 28 years and is reasonably content. But he has begun to suffer from the “Is this all there is?” syndrome. And nobody deals with that problem better than playwright Neil Simon!
And so we find Barney sneaking into his mother’s apartment on New York’s Middle East Side to prepare for a rendezvous with a woman he has picked up at his restaurant. His mother’s apartment, designed by the unerring Jeff Rack, is typical “old lady dowdy,” and so is Barney. He is wearing an inch-wide tie that ends abruptly just south of his nipples. And he is compulsively smelling his fingers and dowsing them with what looks like after-shave lotion.
Enter Elaine Navazio (Maria Spassoff), a horny housewife married to someone who, to hear her tell it, sounds like a Mafia goon. Suddenly panicked, Barney makes small talk, delivering some of Neil Simon’s hilarious dialogue in an effort to “get to know her.” She, of course, is impatient, cynical, and hilarious in her own right.
Barney’s second encounter is with Bobbi (Ashley Platz), a ditzy blonde hippie who regales (and alarms) him with all her previous sexual exploits, and absolutely stops the show. She is marvelous!
And finally, there is Jeannette (Tracy Winters), the neurotic and melancholy wife of one of his friends, who comes in clutching her purse to her chest and proceeds to fill the apartment with gloom and despair. Barney, sucked into her depression, winds up commiserating with her as she cries her way through what he had anticipated as a romantic interlude.
This play, which opened on Broadway in 1969, was one of the first in which Neil Simon inserted a more serious mood into his works. “Lovers,” though funny, is also poignant and filled with mid-life angst. Barney, trapped on the outside of the Sexual Revolution, stands with his nose pressed to the window, envying those who’ve made the transition to the New Morality.
Director Teichman steers his players deftly, engaging us sympathetically with the tribulations of poor beleaguered Barney. And John Combs, who is onstage through the entire play, is the consummate Barney, progressing from panicked nebbish to semi-sophisticated seducer in two and a half hours.
If I can add one minor quibble: the third sequence, with Jeannette, is too long and too unvarying in mood. It ends the play on a downer, which is not what one would expect from Neil Simon. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the production is terrific.
“Last of the Red Hot Lovers” is a production of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. It will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 21 at Pico Playhouse, 10508 West Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles. Call (323) 860-6620 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.