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Theater review: Barefoot in the Park



It's been just under a year since Sue and I trekked up to Davidson College to see the first local staging of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park since Charlotte Rep had done the show in the spring of 2004. That was a nice five-year respite that Davidson Community Players provided us with. This time at CPCC Summer Theatre, I empathized with Harry Pepper, the telephone installer. Returning to the newlywed Bratters' Apartment 5C occasionally seemed like a torturous climb.

What helped our enjoyment on Tuesday night at refurbished Pease Auditorium were the delighted titters, giggles, and guffaws of audience members who were encountering Paul and Corie for the first time. Audiences at Pease skew rather old, so I was amazed that so many had eluded this Simonized romance so long, but yes, I also overheard a few seniors who remembered the 1967 Hollywood version.

The laughter at Pepper's trying ascent and at upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco's continental weirdness comes far more easily after you've let your memories of the Redford, Fonda, and Charles Boyer Barefoot steep for 43 years. Sometimes the audience's reaction struck me as far fresher than the performances onstage.

So if you haven't seen Barefoot recently, I'm confident you'll enjoy what director Carey Kugler and his cast are doing to keep the action -- and the reaction -- lively. Set designer James Duke has dealt well with the pancake height at panoramic Pease: the skylight overhanging the living room couch isn't laughably low, the reluctant radiator is still high enough above the floor to require a stepladder, and the climb along the outside ledge still looks perilous.

Just a few years after their stints with Tarradiddle Players, Greta Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl aren't too old to be playing Corie and Paul, but we just saw a sexier Zandstra last month in Comedy of Errors, indicating a push by Kugler -- and costume designer Heidi O'Hare -- toward cuteness and daffiness. That gives Pofahl more room to be normal, responsible, and career-driven rather than merely a bland, squeamish stuffed-shirt.

I liked Pofahl (and the entire production) best in Act 2, where Paul is repelled by the exotic eel appetizers that Velasco has brought down for his companions' delight. Kugler keeps plenty in reserve on the physical comedy. It peaks when Paul and Corie's mother, the like-minded and stomached Ethel Banks, return weary and drunk from their Staten Island adventure -- at an Albanian restaurant where the bon vivant Velasco has shanghaied them. Surely every Barefoot you see won't feature Paul carrying Ethel over his shoulder like a dead carcass, or such a hilarious dumping of the two drunks onto the sofa.

By this time, I was over the shock of seeing Paula Baldwin's migration from Blanche DuBois at Theatre Charlotte in April to the role of Ethel at CP. A little Joisey accent would have helped me in Act 1, where Ethel is more annoying than comical on her first visit to her daughter's apartment. But Baldwin is nicely zoned-in from the moment she arrives for dinner in Act 2, totally unprepared for the blind date Corie is springing on her.

Theatergoers familiar with Hank West already know that's he game for anything. So it's our challenge to bridge the gap between seeing him as the grande crossdressing dames of Sordid Lives and Die Mommie Die! and the raffish suavity of Victor Velasco. My mind wrapped more easily around the seeming incongruity of coupling West with continental charm at the start of Act 2, when he swapped his goateed Doonesbury look for a slicked-back ponytail. No problems at all after that.

James K. Flynn is subtler with his staircase sufferings than most I've witnessed in the opening scene, but he's the best Harry Pepper that I can recall, dead-on with his comic timing and nicely broadening his portrayal when he finds himself in the middle of the mighty Bratter marital hostilities of Act 3. That early subtlety leaves plenty room for Doug Stauter to go overboard as the UPS delivery man. I thought he went too far over-the-top, but I heard more than a few audience members who would disagree.

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