They are the ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’
Skillful performances by husband-and-wife team Beverly and Kirby Ward
Lawler, Jill, conval, teacher
Barney Cashman, a 47-year-old monogamous seafood restaurateur, is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He has belatedly become acutely aware of his mortality and wants to add some excitement to his staid, predictable and overly “nice” life. His solution is to indulge in an extramarital affair, and Neil Simon’s three-act comedy “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” follows Barney’s attempts at this “consummation devoutly to be wished” with three different partners.
Simon wrote the play in 1969, depicting the time in our cultural history when the sexual revolution had spread to older generations. Had the Players’ production staged this as a period piece, some of the more dated aspects of the script might not have been as obvious. Director Gus Kaikkonen has set it in the present, added a few cultural updates (references to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and photos of Presidents Clinton and Obama), so it feels like Barney not only missed the revolution; he also somehow missed society’s evolution of attitudes towards what had been stultifying gender stereotypes.
This, however, does not diminish the pleasure in this production. The action of the play — or lack of it — follows Barney’s encounters with three very different potential partners typically portrayed by three different actresses. Here, two actors, husband-and-wife team Beverly and Kirby Ward play all of the roles. They last appeared at the Players in 2012 in “I Do, I Do,” a musical following the long marriage of a couple in which they demonstrated their versatility as well as their obvious comfort with each other. That same comfort is evident in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” even when the characters they are portraying are completely uncomfortable with each other.
Barney, despite his stated desire to dally, is something of a prude, stating that meeting someone in a hotel room would be too “sordid.” Instead, he invites women to his mother’s Manhattan studio apartment while she volunteers on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 till 5 p.m. at a hospital. This puts a time limit on his trysts that adds pressure, resulting in much of the humor.
Beverly Ward skillfully inhabits each of the three potential partners that Barney has invited to his mother’s decidedly asexual 1960’s vintage living space. In December it is Elaine Navazio, an edgy serial adulterer who craves physical contact and nicotine, and consumes more J&B scotch in 45 minutes than Barney has drunk is his lifetime. Next is Bobbi Michelle, a certifiably crazy would-be actress who attracts bizarre sexual partners and gets Barney to try marijuana for the first time. Finally, it is Jeannette Fisher, a close friend, with her husband, of Barney and his wife, Thelma. Jeannette suffers from profound melancholia and her deep despair about the lack of decency in humans allows Simon to inject his moralizing. Ward endows each of these very different women with distinct and spot-on mannerisms. While wigs and costumes aid her transformations, it is her skill as an actress that carries it off.
Kirby Ward is the understated comic hero whose Barney does morph into a more confident, yet still inept, “red hot lover” after each of his failed trysts. From his initial entrance compulsively sniffing his hands for traces of the piscatorial odor that is an occupational hazard of daily shucking gallons of oysters and clams, to his ultimate attempt at nonchalance and swagger, he uses both physical comedy and facial expressions to convey Barney’s pursuit of what he thinks is the new American Dream.
Following Barney’s journey to a growing awareness of what he really desires in the hands of two talented performers is a journey worth taking.
The play runs through July 20.