The cast of Early Bird Dinner Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” includes, front row, from left, Robin New, Toby Manion and Barbara Anthony; back row, Tracy Borgatti.
CLEARWATER - Early Bird Dinner Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” runs through Sept. 4 at the Italian-American Club, 200 S. McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater.
Early Bird kicks off its 2011-12 season with a reliable Simon comedy.
Written in 1969, Simon’s “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” examines middle-aged restlessness, unfulfilled desires and infidelity.
Barney Cashman, a 57-year-old restaurateur who married his high school sweetheart, managed to make it through three decades of wedded bliss before succumbing to a growing hunger for an extra-marital tryst. For Barney, it’s not so much about lust as it is about having an adventure. His motives shape his perceptions about adultery creating an unattainable standard.
The play is set in the early 1970s and is made up of three nearly autonomous scenes: On three different afternoons, Barney attempts to seduce a woman in his mother's apartment while she’s off volunteering at a local hospital.
The first potential lover is Elaine Navazio, a promiscuous woman who is no stranger to infidelity. Loud and uninhibited, Elaine is the opposite of Barney: She smokes, she drinks and she cheats on her husband regularly.
Next, Barney lures Bobbi Michele, an aspiring actress and singer with a wavering grip on reality. Her convoluted logic and bizarre tales confound Barney. He soon finds himself submitting to the same paranoid delusions that make Bobbi such an eccentric character.
Finally, Jeannette Fisher – Barney’s wife's best friend – consents to a potentially romantic rendezvous after grabbing him during a dinner party and pinning him down on the kitchen table.
“I had mayonnaise stains on my back when I got home,” Barney exclaims. The comic revelation comes in the middle of a long speech in the closing act in which Barney is deconstructing Jeannette’s own idealistic moral codes to show that what led them to contemplate an affair doesn’t make them indecent or unloving.
“The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” boasts plenty of laughs. Simon covered the bases with this comedy, inventing a variety of characters: Some drip with cynicism, others spin outlandish stories. There’s even a good helping of physical comedy, particularly in the third act, when poor Barney’s dissatisfaction reaches its peak.
Toby Manion is perfect as Barney. Manion brings the character to life in the first few minutes of the play, presenting a soft-spoken, mildly neurotic man who is as excited as he is terrified by his plans for the afternoon. Manion riotously emphasizes Barney’s fixation with sniffing his fingers: As owner of a seafood restaurant, he finds he can never completely rid himself of that low-tide aroma.
Manion depicts the character’s evolution wonderfully, projecting Barney’s timidity and discomfort when faced with the gregarious Elaine in the first act. He’s increasingly puckish in each ensuing scene – but he always manages to uphold Barney’s inherent decency, even though the character is contemplating an affair.
There’s not a hint of self-consciousness in Robin New’s Elaine: New makes it clear that her character is interested in sex with no strings attached. She struts marvelously, delivers Simon’s sarcastic zingers stealthily and utterly engulfs the would-be lothario with her tenacity.
Tracy Borgatti plays Bobbi, offering up the embodiment of chaos. Borgatti really capitalizes on the character’s eccentricities. Her Bobbi rarely stands still and comes with no volume control. Borgatti skillfully depicts the character’s rapid mood swings, too: One minute she’s giddy and flirtatious, the next she’s paranoid and critical.
Barbara Anthony – so often paired on stage with Manion at Early Bird Dinner Theatre – is Jeanette. Anthony’s Jeanette is terminally tense and hilariously jumpy. She clings to her pocketbook as Barney chases her around the apartment. When Jeanette reveals the existential dilemma that drove her to consider having a one-night fling, Anthony plays out the character’s melancholia with just the right blend of misery and mirth.
Barney’s claustrophobic life is mirrored in his mother’s claustrophobic apartment. Manion and New are credited with set design, and their handy work helps establish mood and time frame: Nothing says 1970s like avocado green walls.
While Simon lampoons each of the characters presented in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” he does so affectionately. Each of Barney’s intended lovers is a distinct and colorful character, overstuffed with hilarious idiosyncrasies. Still, the comedy revolves around Barney’s mounting frustration as he tries to find a momentary deviation from his stuffy, tedious routine. Simon exercises that humor to gently illustrate how people learn to live with their failings.
The players at Early Bird Dinner Theatre prove that time hasn’t dulled this classic Simon comedy: the humor is still sharp and the characters well-developed and skillfully depicted by this fine cast. Robin New directs with Midge Mamatas serving as stage manager.
Seating for performances is Thursday through Sunday, 4 p.m. Seating for matinees is Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m. Cost is $29.90 a person. For reservations, call 446-5898. Visit www.earlybirddinnertheatre.com.