Review: Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Larry Murray
The best reason to go see a Neil Simon comedy is to laugh and have a good time. And in the hands of director Jessica Stone you will never, ever see a more successful play for sending audiences into irreversible paroxysms of laughter than Last of the Red Hot Lovers (LOTRHL). Convulsive laughter is one of the by-products of encounters with Neil Simon, America’s most successful playwright, though there is more to his work than that.
There have been few playwrights who have written such damned good parts for women in theatre. The comedy he finds in relationships between men and women comes from a place in Simon’s own life where he feels men and women are evenly matched, as they are in LOTRHL.
Pity poor Barney Cushman, (Brooks Ashmanskas) who spends three acts trying to woo three more-or-less willing partners into bed, only to find that as a lover, he is barely lukewarm. Barney has issues. With his hands which smell of fish from opening oysters and clams at the restaurant he owns, with fidelity to his wife of 25 years, and with any real knowledge of how to pick a woman for a tryst at his mother’s apartment in the East Thirties in Manhattan.
As Barney, Brooks Ashmanskas has never been in better comedy form. It’s not just the smelly hands or uncertain demeanor of a nebbish, it is the beads of perspiration on his forehead as his encounters with each liaison enters unfamiliar territory and he is panic stricken as to what to do next.
The trio of women that enter his secret life of hoped for passion are classic dates of the most horrifying kind: each of the women presents a personality that is new to his limited life experience, and as a people-pleasing restaurant owner, he most of all does not want to offend any of them, so he takes them as they come, which is three pretty unexpected flavors. Watching the fleeting looks on Ashmanskas face as they open their mouths, or answer him back is just one clue to the depth of his acting ability. With Jessica Stone directing, he does not miss, Jackie Gleason style, a single chance to add a hundred hilariously juicy bits of slapstick (albeit subtle) comedy as he careens around his mothers apartment, torn by the desire to bed on the one hand, and keep it in perfect order without the neighbor’s hearing anything on the other. He is hysterical.
In the first act we meet Elaine, a customer from his restaurant played by the marvelous Susie Essman. She collects husbands. Other people’s husbands. Arriving without her cigarettes and bursting into fits of coughing between swigs of scotch, she is all ready to jump into the sack, while Barney – silly thing – wants to get to know her better. But she wants to get to it so she can get a nicotine fix asap. Taking on the persona of a no-nonsense, let’s get it over with life-weary and bitter woman, Essman’s character is given to mocking Barney for his tentativeness when she just wants to get it on, wham, bam, thank you ma’am and be gone. But Ashmanskas reveals the humanity in Barney, this is not just a quickie, it has to have some meaning, some real feeling. Though it all has to happen in two hours, before his mother reclaims the apartment at 5 pm. Elaine leaves, comes back, and leaves again as she keeps hoping Barney will play the game her way, and he tries to compensate, but the twain never meet.
But he learns.
In Act II we meet the goofy Bobbi Michele, an actress who is mad as a hatter. The part is sent over the top by a stunning Leslie Bibb who uses her role’s peculiarities to become a ditzy blonde with an over-active imagination, a personality marinated in the smoke of too much weed. This part gives Bibb a chance to own the stage, for with her on it, Ashmanskas has little to do other than react to her evolved personality and invitation to share a toke. With some of the most hysterical passages of tomfoolery on stage, Bibb keeps both the character Barney and the audience wondering what comes next. This is the act in which Simon mostly sets up the situations and the actors and audience respond to them with delight. It would be worth a second visit to this play just to focus on how many facial expressions that Leslie Bibb and Brooks Ashmanskas can come up with during the course of one act. Surely it is some sort of world’s record. Besides, I was laughing so hard, who had time to count.
The Third Act came as an unexpected surprise, for here is where the playwright began to try his hand at putting more meaning into the relationships between men and women in his plays. In fact, he has revealed a lot about his intentions: Writes Simon, “I like a lot of Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It is not modesty that makes me say “a lot of.” I have never written a play that I thought was completely satisfying. The playwright has obligations to fulfill, such as exposition and character building that must be done. The trick is to do it skillfully. One is always so eager to get to the “meat,” or the confrontations between the antagonist and protagonist, that one occasionally skimps on details. The mature playwright rarely skimps.”
So in Act III, after having written a series of relatively simple comedies, Simon introduces Jeanette Fisher, played by Heidi Schreck, the most complex character in this mid-career play, and while the laughs are trimmed down, he hits the jackpot in delivering real meaning and message to what everyone thinks of as just another Neil Simon comedy. Turns out this character is his wife’s best friend, and a staunch moralist in the midst of a depressive episode. Earlier at a party, she came on to Barney it seems. Talk about mixed messages to be sorted out. LOTRHL has real heart, real warmth, that is arrived at after very uncomfortable moments for the actors and audience as the play shifts gears into real honest relationships.
The genius of Simon is that we do not know this change of course is coming, that we may have to face some pretty uncomfortable truths before arriving at a resolution, but this vivid and compassionate portrayal of Jeanette by Schreck, and Barney’s response to it is the heart and soul of the play. We’ve had our fun, but now we find out just what it was leading up to. We gain insights into Simon’s recurring focus on relationships between men and women. Indeed, Frank Rich once called Simon a “battle-scarred veteran of the sexual wars” – he was married five times. Nobody has ever been better at capturing the distinctive kind of battle of the sexes than this comedy playwright. He may have played it all for laughs, but it rings true nevertheless.
Watching Simon again decades after his peak popularity, especially through the eyes of director Jessica Stone, one becomes aware of just how evenly matched Simon’s women are when compared with those of, say, David Mamet or Tennessee Williams. The women in LOTRHL are battle tested are ready for the overtures of an amateur like Barney, and Barney has no idea what he is walking into.
In the hands of this first rate cast and production team, this is the sort of taken-for-granted play that the Williamstown Theatre Festival is uniquely able to revisit, and show everyone else how it should be done. It reveals a unique blend of dark complexity and nonstop exuberance through Simon’s brilliantly drawn characters and hilarious situations.
Tickets for Last of the Red Hot Lovers are as scarce as, well, good dates, but if you find one, you most assuredly will have one hell of a good time!
Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon, Directed by Jessica Stone, with Alexander Dodge – Sets, Clint Ramos – Costumes, Philip S. Rosenberg – Lights, Drew Levy – Sound. Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas (Barney Cashman), Susie Essman (Elaine Navazio), Leslie Bibb (Bobbi Michele), Heidi Schreck (Jeanette Fsher). 3 Acts with no intermission, at the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, running from July 11-22, 2012. Running time about one hour, forty five minutes.