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Lucy Komisar

Barefoot in the Park -- Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
"Barefoot in the Park"
Written by Neil Simon. Directed by Scott Elliott.
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St.
212-239-6200. 800-432-7250.
Opened Feb. 16, 2006.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Feb. 22, 2006.

Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" is an historical collection of BF moments. BF means "before Friedan" or "before feminism." It was first staged in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was published, and it is an illustration of what was wrong then with many married women's lives.

As theater, the revival at the Cort is on the level of TV sitcom. For a comedy, it often seems leaden. But as sociology, it's fascinating. It's appropriate that it opened less than two weeks after Friedan's death again focused public attention on her landmark book.

Corie Bratter (Amanda Peet) has just married Paul (Patrick Wilson), a 26-year-old lawyer starting out in a new firm. They've spent a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel, most of it in bed. Now, they have a sixth-floor walkup on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. It's February, there's a hole in the skylight, and the apartment is freezing. That fits the culture of this marriage, which, out of bed, is from the Ice Age, BF.

Home from the office, Paul gets a phone call and reports that he will try a big case in the morning. He pulls out his legal briefs and Corie pulls off her clothes, down to her underwear. "Pay attention to me," screams her black negligee. A BF moment!

What is the matter with this woman? What's the matter is that she doesn't have a job, much less a career and needs her husband's attentions all the time.

Days later, when he comes home, he remarks that she has called him eight times at work! A BF moment! Can't this supposedly intelligent young lady find something to do all day? Like get a job?

With the hope of interesting the neighbor, Vincent Velasco (Tony Roberts), in her widowed mother, Ethel Banks (Jill Clayburgh), Corie thinks about pretending that mother is a former actress or writer. Not just a housewife. A BF moment! What about herself?

When Paul is miffed at Corie's behavior, Mrs. Banks's advice to Corie is to "make him feel important." Another BF moment.

Corie says she wants someone who's dependable and takes care of her. A BF moment!

Corie is supposed to be a madcap free spirit contrasted with a husband so uptight that he double-folds his jockey shorts. But with Scott Elliott's sitcom direction, Corie seems just a dumb flake. She mixes a 3-to-1 martini, but it's 3 parts vermouth. When she shakes it, it spurts on her dress. She's not a free spirit, she's a schlemiel.

Patrick Wilson's portrayal of Paul lacks the charm of a Robert Redford, who starred in the original production. Admittedly, he's a hard act to follow. Though Wilson perhaps is more realistic as an unexciting, buttoned-up lawyer. Jill Clayburgh is appealing as Ethel; her transition from selfish and overbearing to a more open and freer spirit shows some character movement. Amanda Peet as her daughter seems one-dimensional. She doesn't change at all, though Simon's dated script doesn't give her many choices.

Adam Sietz delivers the best performance of the play as the phone repairman. He's a believable person, sloppy, overweight, and connected to the others in real space, not a cartoon world.

The misadventures of the odd couples repeatedly descend into sitcom. There's silly stuff about exotic but strange-tasting food and the perils of a night-time expedition to Staten Island.

There are some typically mildly funny Simon one-liners. Velasco, who wears Birkenstocks, looks at the couple's unfurnished apartment and asks Corie, "Are you a folk singer?" Roberts replaced Redford as Paul in the original production. His Velasco is supposed to be slightly bizarre, but he comes across as pretty normal, at least for Greenwich Village in the sixties.

There's an inside joke in the script that most in the audience won't get. Corie yells some sexy remarks down to her husband, who she thinks is coming up the stairs. Suddenly she calls out hello to "Mr. Munshin," a neighbor on the floor below, who it turns out had come into the building the same time as Paul. It's a throw-away line; you never see him.

"Munshin" was Jules Munshin, a comic actor who was part of the group of performers and writers around Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in the 1950s, which included Neil Simon. When the first "Velasco" left the original Broadway cast, Julie took over the role for 3 ½ years. Julie's widow, Bonnie, a former dancer, runs Nick & Toni's, the trendy East Hampton restaurant. Julie was my uncle.

Postscript: I predict Paul, the bright lawyer, will get tired of his twit of a wife and find someone interesting with brains, and a job. The divorce that didn't happen after two weeks will happen after a couple of years. Corie can always move back to her mother's in New Jersey. Unless someone very soon gives her a copy of "The Feminine Mystique." [Komisar].


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