In his introduction to the collection "The Comedy of Neil Simon," the prolific American playwright wrote of an incident in his young marriage where his wife, Joan, hurled a frozen veal chop at him because words could no longer express the passion of a bitter argument they were having.
"A faint flicker of a smile crossed my face," he wrote. Standing outside of himself, Simon saw the absurdity of the situation. Such a moment would fit perfectly in Barefoot, a comedy about newlyweds who, true to the times, don't really know each other yet — and argue about their differences.
Doers and Watchers or The Stuffed Shirt and the Free Spirit could be alternate titles to Barefoot in the Park, but why mess with a classic marquee name? That's not to say this production attempts to be an exact match of the original, or the film version. For starters, the bride's mother is no frump, and the kooky neighbor with the European-sounding name has no accent this time around.
Director Scott Elliott's new Broadway production is sweetened with '60s period songs (among them, "Downtown," which indicates the Greenwich Village setting of the play). His goal was not a frivolous, cutesy, Valentine view of Manhattan newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter (played by Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet).
"We're playing them as real people," Elliott told Playbill.com. "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." Elliott said Simon tweaked a couple of lines here and there, and (with Simon's blessing) the time of the action has been moved to 1965. The three-act play now has one intermission.
Why 1965? Because '65 seemed to be when America was on the brink of explosive social changes, the director suggested.
"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 published version of 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. For the revival, 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.'"
(The park of the title has always been Washington Square Park — more than 40 blocks south of East 48th Street.)
Elliott said the address is 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, and Corie, the free-spirit housewife. 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).
"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."
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."
The production also features Adam Sietz and Sullivan Walker in choice workmen roles.
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 was Simon's second Broadway play (it followed Come Blow Your Horn).
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.
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. (He and Elliott opted to not make Victor a European immigrant.)
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.