IF YOU GO
What: Romantic comedy by Neil Simon about newlyweds learning to live together
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 2
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.org
Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly during season. Use the garage near Cambier Park or the complimentary valet at Truluck's.
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — The Naples Players opened 2013 with a solid, if unspectacular, production of winsome Neil Simon comedy "Barefoot in the Park" Wednesday. Michael Santos and Tiffany Clementi fought, giggled, threw shoes and more on the fifth floor of a crumbling brownstone with a hole in the skylight.
"Barefoot," one of Simon's silliest, most delightful confections, is based on the playwright's own experiences as a newlywed. Three bite-sized acts follow Paul and Corrie Bratter from nesting lovebirds making out by the door to near-divorce. In between, Corrie's mother drinks ouzo and sleeps on rugs with the bohemian upstairs, while Paul wanders barefoot in the park in the snowy, 17-degree New York winter.
Beyond the romantic fripperies and Big Apple real estate horrors (a fifth-floor walk-up where the plumbing works in reverse?), the show carries a slight, sweet understated message. Love means opening yourself up to compromise, be it accepting your husband's penchant for pressing his ties in the phone book or embracing your wife's desire to sing the tinkling tunes of Tiranë.
The Naples Players production of "Barefoot in the Park" moves in fits and starts. Director Chris Goutman, imported from New York, lifts some scenes to vibrant life but leaves others curiously flat. The 40-minute first act drags like a bridal train, portending a long evening.
Midway through the second act, the show catches fire as shoes start flying only to droop again as emotions cool and conversations start again. Then, Goutman, aided by Simon's lovely dialogue, sends audiences out into the balmy Southwest Florida night on a tide of newlywed bliss. Much like marriage itself, the show feels frustrating, rocky, often impenetrable but also joyful, unabashedly brilliant and delightfully sweet.
Goutman understands the charms of the play, especially the way that Simon intended to show that couples might need to come up for air as they work out the kinks of living together. Every scene with major action - Paul stomping around the apartment packing his suitcase, a hysterical Corie demanding a divorce, messy drunks plopping off the sofa to the tune of Albanian folk songs - sparks like the first flowering of young love.
Conversations and the quieter moments fail to engage. Goutman's blocking and stage direction seems curiously inert, as if he simply asked the actors to "wing it." Characters just sit and talk, with the audience sitting and watching as the pace begins to drag.
Michael Santos captivates as just-married Paul Bratter. Santos (a newlywed himself) shaved his longtime goatee for the role and brings a fresh-faced, boyish, appeal to his uptight lawyer. Paul really does love Corie - even if he doesn't understand why they need to live in a one-room fifth floor walk-up with a hole in the skylight and a closet for a bedroom.
What Santos does so well is breathe life into Paul's actions. Every step across the threshold seems like he just ran a marathon, with Santos hanging off the doorframe and gasping for breath (five flights, six if you count the stoop) will do that to anyone. When Corie demands a divorce, Paul cooly grabs a notepad and forces her to see the silliness of her actions. Watch for the moment Santos carries a very drunk Mrs. Banks (Diane Davis) into the apartment before collapsing in the kitchen.
Tiffany Clementi works overtime to give ultra-peppy cheer to her Corie. She suits the role, but I wish she had more on-stage chemistry with both Santos and Davis. Her wide-eyed, manic breakdown, where she calls Paul a "stuffed shirt" represents the point where the play truly takes off.
Goutman neglected an opportunity to truly make the play sing by relegating Naples Players veterans Davis and Val Kuffel (Victor Velasco) to secondary importance. Their characters, as much as Paul and Corie's, offer an important lesson on opening your heart (and mind) to new things.
Neither truly emerge from the background of the play - despite the fact that Simon wrote them as outlandish caricatures of an overbearing mother and the typical kooky New York neighbor. I would like to have seen both actors been given the freedom (or direction) to broaden their characters and create indelible personalities that would have enlivened the play.
Todd Potter's set captures one-room living in New York, although the space he had to work with on the Sugden stage is probably larger than many New York studio apartments. Steps give the illusion of depth and height, while the broken skylight looms large overhead. I loved the drifting snowfall to close the second act, as well as the glimpses of the NYC skyline, the hallway and plumbing through the other doors. One slight criticism: Reflections in the skylight and the windows often proved a distraction, making it seem like actors were moving in different directions.
Costumes, from Ulla Doose, prove a mixed bag. Corie heads out to a misbegotten Staten Island dinner party in a smashing coat with big puffball tassels. She returns, pickled to the gills, singing into the puffs like a microphone. Kuffel wears a natty beret.
But, oh, the not-so-period leopard. Abominable leopard-trimmed boots for Clementi make for a distraction in the first half as she scampers about the stage, while the pattern shows up again on Davis (a hat and a cap) in the second half. Points to sound (and lights) designer Craig Walck for opening the second half - and the ill-fated dinner party with Lesley Gore's "It's My Party."
Despite the faults, "Barefoot in the Park" might be the Naples Players' best show in several seasons. Michael Santos delivers a winning performance as a newlywed husband learning to take off his shoes and dive in, while Tiffany Clementi discovers the joys of ouzo and Staten Island.
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