"We're playing them as real people," Elliott told Playbill.com Jan. 12, a dozen days before the Jan. 24 first preview at the Cort Theatre. "They all have needs, these characters. You can really look into, and find a lot in, the play — it gives you a lot of clues to what their needs are."
For this first Broadway revival of the famous comedy about young love — a play inspired by Simon's first marriage to wife Joan — Simon is tweaking a couple of lines here and there, Elliott said, and there will be only one intermission in a script once broken into three acts. Elliott, with Simon's blessing, has placed the action in 1965, just when America was on the brink of explosive social changes.
"I don't like to write 'time' and 'place' in the program," Elliott said. "I try to make it a challenge to myself to try to make it as clear possible. 's the end of the innocence. It's still not cynical yet, and I think that's the beauty of the play — it's not cynical, it's emotional."
The script indicates that the fifth-floor walkup apartment (whose exhausting stairs are a running joke from Scene One) is located on East 48th Street. The location has been changed to Greenwich Village.
"That's where Neil lived when he first got married," Elliott explained. "I said to him, 'This feels like a Greenwich Village play.'" Elliott said it's now West 11th Street "because that's where I lived when I first lived in the village…on West 11th Street! I lived in a third-floor walkup."
The tiny apartment is the setting for marital fireworks between Paul, a young, buttoned-down lawyer played by Patrick Wilson, and wife Corie, the free-spirit (played by Amanda Peet). The social context is traditional American marriage — where you are expected to get married and then live together.
These are people who haven't really experienced each other: The twentysomething Paul and Corie still have a lot to learn about marital negotiation. That process is made more intense in the context of new home, new closeness, new job (for Paul) and visits by Corie's widowed New Jersey mother (played by Jill Clayburgh). Mom eventually forms an unexpected bond with the upstairs bohemian, Victor Velasco, played by Tony Roberts (who played Paul late in the original Broadway run in 1965).
Those who know the play realize it's a delicate dance for any actors playing Paul and Corie. Paul could come off as a boorish jerk and Corie could seem a flightly fool.
"They're naïve," Elliott observed of Paul and Corie. "The different thing about them is that people didn't live together before they got married. They got married and then they lived together. That's the universal thing about the play: Everybody who has ever been in love and moved in with somebody has gone through stuff like this. No matter what age, if you fall in love with somebody and you move in with them, you have to fall in love all over again. It's never that easy."
Elliott marvels at Simon's craft of putting the older lovers in contrast to the younger: "Two people falling in love at a different age — it's about collaboration and acceptance," he said. "It's an ensemble play. I think the resonance of those two other characters makes it an ensemble play. That's the way I like to work. I'm hoping people will feel it's emotionally equal."
In a famous fight scene, Corie talks about "doers" and "watchers" and rails against her "stuffed shirt" young husband. Is she on a mission to change him?
"I don't even think that's what it's about," Elliott said. "She's on a mission to understand how this happened…how it happens. I don't think it's an aggressive act to change him, it's more about trying to understand it."
What attracted Elliott — founding artistic director of The New Group known for his gritty naturalistic stagings of Abigail's Party, Hurlyburly and Aunt Dan and Lemon — to the early work of America's most commercially successful playwright?
"It's a beautiful play — it's a touching, emotional play," Elliott said. "I always look for the emotion. It's not a gag play, it's a real story, it's Neil Simon's story. I'm hoping that he'll be touched by it."
How did Elliott get paired with Simon? Producer Robyn Goodman (Avenue Q, Altar Boyz) told Playbill.com, "I'm kind of director-motivated and I've had a relationship with Scott and The New Group for a while, and I went to him one day and said...What do you wanna do?' Honestly, his first answer was Barefoot in the Park. I was so taken aback, because you think of him for Mike Leigh [plays] and Three Penny Opera [coming this spring for Roundabout Theatre Company] — edgy and dark, and Barefoot is so sunny and of that period. I said, 'I love that play, I can't believe you said that!' I don't think people today realize what a wonderful play it is."
The first call Goodman made was to longtime Simon producer Manny Azenberg, and she told him she and Elliott wanted to do Barefoot — did he have plans to produce it? He didn't, and he introduced Goodman to Paramount Pictures, which owns the rights.
A reading with Peet and Wilson 18 months ago showed Goodman and Elliott they were on the right track. "Scott and I said we'll look and see if anything [in the script] doesn't work anymore because it was the '60s," Goodman said. "Neither one of us wrote down one thing. It was so fresh."
Barefoot in the Park — Simon's second Broadway play (it followed Come Blow Your Horn) — opens Feb. 16 at the Cort. The production will also feature Adam Sietz and Sullivan Walker in choice workmen roles.
Isaac Mizrahi has designed the 1960s period costumes for the new production. Mizrahi and Elliott last collaborated on the Roundabout Broadway production of The Women.
The producing team includes Robyn Goodman, Roy Gabay, Walter Grossman, Geoff Rich, Danzansky Partners, Ergo Entertainment, Ruth Hendel, in association with Paramount Pictures.
"Neil Simon's second play, Barefoot in the Park is the classic romantic comedy about conservative young lawyer Paul Bratter (Patrick Wilson) and his free-spirited newlywed bride Corie (Amanda Peet)," according to the producers. "The comedy follows the young couple as they move from the giddy joy of a honeymoon at The Plaza into the crazy reality of starting married life in a fifth-floor walkup in New York City."
Barefoot marks the Broadway debut of Peet ("Syriana," "Something's Gotta Give" and "The Whole Nine Yards"). Wilson has twice been nominated for a Tony Award for his leading roles in the musicals The Full Monty and Oklahoma! He was seen in last year's film "The Phantom of the Opera" and the acclaimed mini-series "Angels in America" (directed by Barefoot's first director, Mike Nichols). Two-time Academy Award nominee Clayburgh ("An Unmarried Woman") recently starred in Roundabout's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way. Two-time Tony Award nominee Roberts has appeared in over 20 Broadway plays and musicals. As an understudy, he replaced Robert Redford in the role of Paul Bratter during Barefoot's original Broadway run, and later took the role over.
Starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, with Kurt Kasznar as Victor Velasco and Mildred Natwick as Mrs. Banks, Corie's mother, the original production was a huge hit, and ran for four years and over 1,530 performances. Nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Play, Barefoot in the Park won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for Nichols. In 1967, Paramount Pictures made the play into a successful film starring Jane Fonda and Redford, directed by Gene Saks.