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Gamble plays off beautifully in Barefoot in the Park

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Back in days when I devoured Superman comics more readily than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I remember a particular Man of Steel saga when the caped hero was able to achieve time travel by staging an encounter between an irresistible force and an immovable object. When this titanic pair collided, the Laws of Physics decreed time travel -- for both cannot exist in the same time and place.

An equally improbable encounter is occurring at the Duke Family Performance Hall at Davidson College. Charlotte's all-time King of Kink, Alan Poindexter, is directing Neil Simon's wholesomest comedy, Barefoot in the Park, for Davidson Community Players. Alan Poindexter and Neil Simon are in the same sentence! We aren't back in the 1990s, that's for sure, when wunderkind Poindexter forged his directorial reputation on The Chairs, The Changeling, The Ice Wolf, and Alice in Wonderland between acting stints in Irma Vep, Tale of Two Cities, Angels in America, and Gross Indecency.

Yes, Poindexter has blinked -- or lost consciousness -- in giving a second thought to this most artful sitcom by the Bankable One. He has also managed to inject some welcome realism into a script that I dismissed as "the theatrical equivalent of a baloney sandwich served on a silver platter" when Charlotte Rep produced the comedy in 2004, après Steve Umberger and Michael Bush.

Poindexter actually overcomes a second obstacle nearly equal to the script: the mammoth kitchen-dining room that greets newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter at the topmost floor of a five-storey walk-up. Set designer Andrew Gibbon doesn't hide the fact that the Bratters could hold a Lions Club social in this supposedly cramped, overpriced space and not even use the postage stamp bedroom hidden offstage.

Years ago, Poindexter might have been stymied by the double-wide Duke and the high-fructose script. But in the new millennium, as artistic director of Children's Theatre, the worldly, mature Poindexter has midwifed and programmed a modest share of 24-carat shlock at ImaginOn.

Here he finds a single, multipurpose instrument to shrink the set and pepper the script. She is Maret Seitz, a rising theatre major at Davidson, who bursts onto the stage and fills the hall with Corey's smiling, optimistic energy. Poindexter piles extra reasons for Seitz to scamper merrily across the stage, from one wing to another, greeting the phone repairman, schmoozing him, and zipping back to the hallway to guide Paul up the fabled six flights of stairs -- remember, the guys count the stoop outside.

Damning the Rep production of 2004 with snarky praise, I remarked that Elizabeth Wells Berkes, playing Corey, "throws an adorable tantrum." Seitz doesn't. She transcends the sitcom tantrums minted by Lucille Ball and, miracle of miracles, really seems to be angry! Suddenly, Seitz can be equally genuine in her regret when she drives her husband away -- and their reconciliation can be genuinely touching and meaningful when he comes in out of the cold. Simon might try to give that formula a test-drive sometime.

Gino Pietrantoni as the Telephone Repairman and Lauralee Bailey as Corie's mom both have a sure grasp of their older-but-wiser roles. Simon idolators may still be dismayed to find that their exhaustion as they reach the summit of their epic climbs up the staircase has been muted to a level slightly below outright vaudeville. Same goes for Christian Love, a charmingly starchy Paul, who doesn't seem to need an ambulance even after Corey has sent him back into the street to buy some beverage for Mom.

All this restraint is more effectively cast to the wind when Paul returns from his drunken ramble out in the snow. Physical comedy here gets ratcheted up bigtime, reminding us that it was Paul who was the odd man out, remaining sober when upstairs bon vivant Victor Velasco led them on an exotic adventure to an alcoholic Abyssinia in Staten Island. In a nicely shaped Paul that had me thinking Felix Unger Lite, Love makes the contrast count.

As Velasco, Philip Robertson ably fills out the cast -- despite the fact that no GPS made can locate his foreign accent.

No, we can't accuse Davidson Community Players of risk-taking when they picked West Side Story and Barefoot in the Park for their summer slate. The daring came in the casting, counting on actresses who were truly the right ages to portray the crucial roles of Maria in West Side and Corie in Barefoot. In both instances, the gamble has paid off beautifully.

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