PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Barefoot in the Park: Observing the Shoe Dress Code

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Barefoot in the Park: Observing the Shoe Dress Code Up in Central Park, on Feb. 16, the water around The Boathouse had iced over so no caution was wildly thrown to the wind by the first-nighters celebrating the first Broadway revival (at the Cort) of Neil Simon’s funny Valentine to young love, Barefoot in the Park.

Amanda Peet; Patrick Wilson; Penny Fuller & Tony Roberts; Jill Clayburgh & Lily Rabe; Scott Elliott; Isaac Mizrahi; David Rabe; Annabella Sciorra; Ana Gasteyer; Kathy Bates; Robyn Goodman; Peter Boyle; Molly Shannon.
Amanda Peet; Patrick Wilson; Penny Fuller & Tony Roberts; Jill Clayburgh & Lily Rabe; Scott Elliott; Isaac Mizrahi; David Rabe; Annabella Sciorra; Ana Gasteyer; Kathy Bates; Robyn Goodman; Peter Boyle; Molly Shannon. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

‘Twas the same season as the play’s setting, and its title is advanced as grounds for divorce by a lass (Amanda Peet) who fears she married a straight-laced stuffed-shirt (Patrick Wilson) because he won’t shuck his socks and dance in the February snow.

Few of the opening-night crowd, conservative and liberal alike, would endorse or duplicate that behavior, but it was nostalgic to see what passed for conflict in 1963. Encountering that again made a number of contented customers feel youngish and downright innocent.

Heavy-breathing honeymooners are par for the course, but here Simon sez the condition is caused by the couple’s five-flight walk-up (six, if you count the stoop—and everybody who breathlessly enters the apartment counts the stoop). Sullivan Walker, as a hapless deliveryman, goes through a three-minute bit without enough wind to form a word. “No dialogue—I just groan and breathe heavily,” admits Walker, who is allowed the carrot of understudying Tony Roberts. Not that he actually expects to go on, but he can dream, can’t he? “Tony is such a pro, such a healthy pro,” he laughs. “At least that’s his rep.”

Roberts is cast as the roué upstairs who skirt-chases the stuffed-shirt’s mother-in-law (originated on Broadway and film by the late Mildred Natwick; here played with charm concentrate by Jill Clayburgh, who turns something politically incorrect like smoking a cigarette between deftly jabbed punchlines into a class act). Previously, the womanizer was played with a foreign accent, but not here. “Kurt Kasznar played it with an accent, Jules Munshin played it with an accent. The character was always done as a European bizarro, which is the way I would have done it if not instructed differently by the director, Scott Elliott.” (Roberts adopted a grand theatricality that got the laughs.) “You can characterize it anyway you like. It isn’t necessarily how I’d do it, but if it works, it works.”

This is not his first time at the Barefoot rodeo, either. Roberts followed two other Roberts (Redford and the late Reed) into the role of the stuffed-shirt. “Déjà vu all over again—that’s the best way to describe it. I remember saying lines someone else is saying and he’s getting laughs with them.” Was he tempted to give Wilson a few helpful hints in his old role? “I was tempted, but I wouldn’t and didn’t and I think that was appreciated.” Did he have a good time on opening night? “Honestly, not tonight,” he replies. “There was an odd energy in the air because everyone has friends and relatives in the house—they root for you. A normal audience doesn’t root for you. They just listen and respond better.”

Penny Fuller, who was Roberts’ honeymoon half during a major stretch of the play’s original run (and almost went of a real honeymoon with him—the two were engaged for a time during their run), had a similar heard-that-song-before response. “I haven’t thought about the lines in that show for many, many years,” she admits, “but I’d be watching it and I’d be involved just as a member of the audience, and, in my head, I would hear lines—not necessarily my lines but other people’s lines—that were about to be said. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I know this?” It was very dreamlike. It’s one of Neil’s best plays, and I think it’s underestimated because it’s funny. It’s incredibly precise in capsulizing that relationship.”

Currently, Fuller is filled to the brim with Chekhov—“a cycle of all four of his major plays. Olympia Dukakis and Austin Pendleton and I are doing staged readings at a Chekhov festival in West Bank, NJ. Then, I’m doing my cabaret at Birdland March 6.”

Preceding Penny Fuller in the part—in fact, originating it to the tune of a Tony nomination—was the expansively expressive Elizabeth Ashley, who took great delight into revisiting the play on opening night, exuding praise all over the place, especially for Peet. “I was cute, but I don’t think I was that cute. Amanda was just wonderful!”

However, when the subject turns to recalling some favorite moments in the original run, Ashley blanches and balks. “You must be joking!” she says. “Darling, when I did this play, it was 43 years ago. I don’t remember much of anything that happened more than two weeks ago. So I have very few memories. I remember how wonderful Doc [Neil Simon] was. I remember how wonderful Mike Nichols [who got a Tony for his direction] was. I don’t remember plays—you go on to other plays and one has to learn to erase.”

Angelica Torn, on the good writing arm of Post columnist Michael Riedel, says she and Ashley are developing a mother-daughter act, written and directed by Paul Alexander, who did the same for the Sylvia Plath one-woman show that Torn did to considerable acclaim Off-Broadway and in London. “It’s called Southern Gothic, and it’s on the fast track to Broadway,” she trills in her best Riedelese. “I play the daughter of a theatre legend.” The offspring of Geraldine Page and Rip Torn laughs at the good fit. “I think I can play that.”

Elizabeth was not the only Ashley in attendance. Christopher Ashley, himself a director with a pronounced comic flair, is wearing a long face these days to ready Alfred Uhry’s schoolroom drama, Without Walls, for the Mark Taper June 1-July 16. Morgan Freeman won’t be going to the head of the class, as originally hoped, but “expect big casting news in about a week.” By late summer or early fall, Ashley will be his silly old self again, helming Paul Rudnick’s latest, Regrets Only, for the Manhattan Theatre Club. The comedy updates the sex-strike situation of Lysistrata to embrace the current battle for same-sex marriage—i.e., the gay walker of a wealthy matron discovers her husband has headed to the White House to work on anti-gay-marriage amendments and, in protest, organizes his walker pals to walk out on the rich ladies they customarily escort. “It’s a very funny play,” promises Ashley, who historically knows one when he sees one.

Peter Bartlett, who rather magnificently minced out in Rudnick’s one-act, Mr. Charles, Formerly of Palm Beach, says that the author has come up with ten new pages for that play, and there will be a reading of it next week for producers who want to pair it with Pride and Glory, a 10-minute Jackie Hoffman kvetch that Rudnick wrote as his contribution to “The Downtown Plays” that the Tribeca Theatre Festival presented in the fall of 2004.

Freshly kissed by Encores!’s Kismet success, Lonny Price says he’s bound for Houston next week with Audra McDonald to present her in a couple of one-act operas in March: Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and the world premiere of Michael John LaChuisa’s Send (who are you? I love you) that was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera. He and McDonald and Patti LuPone have spent their last three summers together at Ravinia doing a Sondheim show. This summer (Aug. 10-12), LuPone will get to do her long-thwarted Gypsy—but what will he do with McDonald? “Mazeppa, maybe?” he offers.

After that, Price and McDonald will do the first Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musicalized Rainmaker, for Roundabout next year.

Among the opening night celebrities: Kathy Bates, who has no definite Broadway plans “but, when I come out to nights like this, it really makes me miss it”); Stephen Bogardus, resting a bit after working both coasts (White Christmas in Boston and in The City of Angels); Annabella Sciorra, luscious in black chiffon; Peter Boyle, okay in a business suit; Ricardo Chavira, who’s Carlos to “Desperate Housewives” and went through the last cinematic fall of The Alamo with Wilson; Molly Shannon; blonde Ana Gasteyer; Clayburgh’s playwright hubby, David Rabe; who’s putting the finishing touches to his novel, “Dinosaurs on the Roof”; their actress daughter, Lily Rabe, who’s starting a film now and hunting for a new play; director Walter Bobbie and producer Robyn Goodman, both bullish on their next show, High Fidelity, which has songs by “the next Comden and Green”: composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green, and a book by Rabbit Hole’s David Lindsay-Abaire; playwright Martin McDonagh, bracing for the Atlantic Theatre launching of The Lieutenant of Inishmore Feb. 27 and escorting a sweetie who gave her name as Ethel Mertz.

The two young stars of Barefoot posed for pictures and moved from galaxy to galaxy of well-wishers. Peet looked particularly appealing without her overly protective California publicist and seemed relieved to be over the hump of a Broadway debut. “It is different,” she concedes. “It’s a lot more pressure. I was really nervous when I started out”—when she starts out, she’s on a wobbly ladder getting tangled in wallpaper paste (a very funny bit of physical comedy)—“but, when my co-stars came on stage, I felt a lot better.” Wilson, who hovered close to his six-months pregnant wife Dagmara, was pleased someone noticed he got through a Broadway show without any song and dance. “It is my nonmusical Broadway debut,” he confessed. “You know, I guess people thought of me as a musical guy, but the reality is that I’ve been acting pretty regularly in films since Angels in America” [the Tony Kushner play that was turned into an HBO movie by the ubiquitous Mike Nichols]. “When I first moved to New York, I remember doing a few musicals and just needing to go do a play. In college, I did more plays than musicals. I guess I’m just lucky that, whether it’s a musical or a play, it was a great role. One of the decision-makers is what the role is like. It was a kind of a decision. I hadn’t done a play in New York. I hadn’t done romantic comedy. So Neil’s play was just right for me. When they came and asked me a year and a half, two years ago, I said, ‘Absolutely. Make it work.’”

Conspicuous in his absence was the show’s 78-year-old author, but Simon did check it out, according to general manager Roy Gabay: “At the invited dress, Elaine [Joyce, Mrs. Simon] was there. She called him at intermission to tell him how much she liked it and then called him at the end of the show. He came the next night, our first live performance, and then he went back to California because he’s working on something new right now.”

Did Simon do a little tweaking and tinkering, as is his wont? “One little thing,” says Gabay. “He added a line that was not in the play. It was a line that was written for the movie, and it was his line. He had Jill repeat one of Tony’s lines to get her exit applause.”

Isaac Mizrahi certainly had an easier time designing for this show (15 costumes, tops!) than he did for his Drama Desk Award-winning Broadway debut, The Women, for which he outfitted 26 of that gender a number of times (including a controversial curtain call in their undies). Director Elliott had hired him for that, and he has hired him for The Threepenny Opera, which will bow April 24 at Studio 54.

Various models milled among partygoers in their Mizrahis long after the master had gone. He left early, according to one gorgeous creature in red, “because his little doggie, Harry, was sick.”

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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