Neil Simon romp steams up the Acrosstown

Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 11:48 p.m.
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Susan Christophy, who plays Jeanette Fisher, left, and Charles Mathis, who plays Barney Cashman, act out a segment in the third scene of the play "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," a Neil Simon comedy. The play debuts tonight at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre and will continue through Feb. 18.

TRICIA COYNE/Special to The Sun
Barney Cashman's fingers stink of clams. A 37-year-old stammering, finger-smelling, fish restaurateur, Barney finds himself in the throes of a mid-life crisis - he's never been in a fight, never been in a car accident, never had a fever over 102. He married the only girl he has ever been with, not counting the prostitute who was old enough to be his mother. And, after 13 years of marriage, he has begun to lament a life mundane.
So Barney decides to join the sexual revolution and have one fling - one afternoon of intense passion to last him the rest of his humdrum life.
So goes Neil Simon's comedy "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," which opens tonight at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. The play examines infidelity and "what this whole idea of attraction, sex, maybe even love is about," says director Robert Brown.
The four characters are "basically typecast," Brown says.
Barney, played by Charles Mathis, is Joe Everyman, a working-class schlub whose dreams of being a writer have boiled down to naming menu items: "Sweet Succulent Savory Swordfish" and "Flaming Florentine Flounder."
Elaine (Kara Winslow), Barney's first attempted tryst, is a beautiful woman with a violent husband who can't stop sleeping around. "She's basically a 'holic,'" Winslow says of her character. "A sexaholic, an alcoholic, a chain smoker."
Jeanette (Susan Christophy) is a depressive housewife who happens to be Barney's wife's best friend. Bobbi (Courtney Wilkins) is a pot-smoking, certifiably insane flower child - the play was, after all, written in 1969. Wilkins describes her character as "quite complex in a very twisted way."
But there is a humanity to these characters, personalities fueled by a liberal dose of Simon's signature sharp humor.
As in most Simon plays, the humor evolves from situations: Barney tries to seduce women in his mother's apartment - a bad start for a fish peddler pushing 40. Bobbi lives with a woman who was a Nazi and tells stories of a former boyfriend who had his teeth sharpened.
"Neil Simon is so clever," Wilkins says. "Every character is so distinctively different, it brings out different parts of people in the audience."
Simon's prolific play-writing career has included "The Odd Couple," "Lost in Yonkers" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs." He is among the most celebrated American playwrights, winning the Writers Guild Award in 1975, a Golden Globe in 1978 for the screenplay "The Goodbye Girl," as well as several Emmy and Academy Award nominations.
"There was a long stretch where everything Neil Simon did was on Broadway," Brown said. As for that finger-sniffing "Red Hot Lover"? Well, this Simon play is driven by a single question, Brown says: "Will he or won't he? You'll have to see it to find out."

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