Elliott Gets Lost in the Park- Simon’s Barefoot Stuck in ’63

The revival of Neil Simon’s 1963 Barefoot in the Park with Amanda Peet and Patrick Wilson at the Cort on Broadway has not been greeted with ecstasy. Nor was the revival of Mr. Simon’s more popular old potboiler, The Odd Couple, with its miscast stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. (What next for the Laurel and Hardy of our time, Lane and Broderick— The Sunshine Boys?). But I’m afraid that Scott Elliott’s production of Barefoot in the Park has upped the ante on Broadway revivals.

Was Neil Simon’s “screwball comedy” that funny—or that screwball—in the first place? I guess it must have been. It was certainly a big hit with the young Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley 43 years ago. But an adequate 1967 film version with Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda I’ve seen some of on TV looks badly dated. The Odd Couple—miscast or not—remains vintage Neil Simon at his best. But it’s difficult to see how the original Barefoot in the Park has become such a classic in the intervening 43 years that it merits a major Broadway revival.

My 90-year-old aunt in England doesn’t think it’s worth reviving. I wouldn’t introduce her, but Aunt Marie knows a thing or two. Whenever we talk by phone, she always says to me, “Seen any good theater lately—dare I ask?”

When I said I was about to see Barefoot in the Park, she sounded very surprised. “Why on earth would they revive it?” she asked. “It’s so old-fashioned.”

Now, if my English aunt at 90 years of age knows it’s old-fashioned, what do the seven big-shot producers of Barefoot in the Park know that she doesn’t know? What do they know, and when did they know it? What does Scott Elliott know? And what does the show’s stylish costume designer Isaac Mizrahi know?

Mr. Mizrahi, it so happens, knows a lot and I won’t hear a word against him, unless it’s from me. I have thought highly of the boy ever since I heard him sing “A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich And You” while creating a frock on a sewing machine during his own one-man show. Mr. Mizrahi designed the costumes for Mr. Elliott’s revival of The Women in 2001, and the curtain call of the entire cast wearing vintage 1930’s underwear was the high point. If Mr. Mizrahi has a flaw in his costume designs for the theater, however, it is that he’s incapable of creating anything remotely drab.

For example, the young heroine’s dreaded mother (played by Jill Clayburgh) in Barefoot in the Park is described in the script as someone who “has not bothered to look after herself these past few years. She could use a permanent and a whole new wardrobe.”

A permanent? Neil Simon means a perm, we assume. A perm? But a woman who needs a whole new wardrobe ought not to enter looking more stylish than her own daughter. The glamorous and even chic Ms. Clayburgh is meant to look like a frump. You can take 1960’s nostalgia too far— much too far. Mr. Mizrahi will be designing the costumes for Mr. Elliott’s new production of The Threepenny Opera in April. Memo to them both: Brecht has never been performed chic.

But the look of the Barefoot in the Park production, with its retro-60’s set design and fifth-floor walk-up by Derek McLane, isn’t to blame for what’s gone wrong. Nor the inexperienced leads. Nor even its sound—Petula Clark singing “Downtown,” which gives the impression that the action is all happening in the wild and wacky Village. (It’s actually taking place in the nondescript East 40’s off Third, but no matter.) The creaky script itself simply doesn’t hold up. A million TV sitcoms since Mr. Simon wrote Barefoot in the Park in 1963 have made it unsavably dated.

A while ago, I was on a panel discussion about the Broadway season with Mr. Elliott, the founder of the New Group. He explained that it was time to revive Barefoot in the Park and look at it again. He presented an enthusiastic case for it having meaningful things to say to us today about the flush of love and the reality of marriage. But I couldn’t help but fear that the director, whose specialty is social realism (the British plays of Mike Leigh; the recent fine revival of Hurlyburly), was talking about a minor Neil Simon comedy as if it were a neglected Ibsen.

Underneath Mr. Simon’s typical froth is Mr. Simon’s typical froth. Or as the lady said, “There is no there there.” Corie Bratter (Amanda Peet) is the newly married wifey. She’s the kind of madcap, spontaneous spirit who loves to walk barefoot in the park in the middle of winter. As I write this, it’s so freezing cold outside that everybody’s at home in bed. It wouldn’t bother Corie! She’d be outside walking barefoot in the park! And you know why? Because she’s adorable.

Corie Bratter is not for me. But Irene Bullock is. As long as Carole Lombard plays Irene Bullock in the 1936 My Man Godfrey, she’s irresistibly for me. I was glad to see the enduring screwball film classic again after seeing Barefoot in the Park. It reminds us of the possibilities. On the other hand, repressed Paul (Patrick Wilson) is Corie’s young husband. He’s a conventional lawyer, a stuffed shirt in a business suit who’s middle-aged about 25 years before his time. What did Corie ever see in him? And vice versa. Well, he’s handsome, she’s pretty. And Mr. Simon has thus written an expertly programmed sitcom in two acts about the comic “horrors” of marriage once the honeymoon is over, with “zany” subplot.

There’s also Corie’s well-meaning old mum (Ms. Clayburgh)—a familiar comic stereotype of the interfering mother-in-law who’s meant to be “lovable.” Is she Jewish? (As one of my colleagues explained, “Yes and no.”) There’s an aging lothario, Victor Velasco (played by Tony Roberts in a beret), who will surely pursue secretly willing widowed Mum (who will pretend to be shocked). Victor is some kind of broke artist or unemployed chef. He’s the original wild and crazy guy who cooks exotic stuff like kimchi and eats really strange foreign food in Queens (both sources of much hilarity).

All the neighbors in the building are “crazy” like Victor. “Do you know we have some of the greatest weirdos in the country right here, in this house?” says Paul.

“Really,” says Corie. “Like who?”

“Well … Mr. and Mrs. Bosco.”

“Who are they?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Bosco are a lovely young couple who just happen to be of the same sex and no one knows which one that is.”

Only in New York, folks. But Paul names other tenants with “peculiar” names—foreign sort of names. “In Apartment 3C live Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales.”

“So?” says Corie.

“I’m not through. Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales, Mr. and Mrs. Armanariz, and Mr. Calhoun … who must be the umpire.”

What’s the joke? But Mr. Simon is on a roll. “No one knows who lives in Apartment 4D,” Paul continues. “No one has come in or gone out in three years except every morning there are nine empty cans of tuna fish outside the door …. ”

“No kidding,” says Corie, the comic feed. “Who do you think lives there?”

“Well, it sounds like a big cat with a can opener.”

It’s pretty tame, isn’t it? Yet fans of Neil Simon insist that he’s a comic master who never descended to the level of gags and one-liners. And to that I say: Tell it to the big cat with the can opener.

Barefoot in the Park was Mr. Simon’s first hit, and the chemistry of the theater ingénue named Robert Redford—“my golden goy,” as Barbra Streisand described him—and the always attractive Elizabeth Ashley is said to have made it appealing. But Patrick Wilson—who’s been so successful in musicals—blandly lacks a certain sexual magnetism, and, alas, Amanda Peet is trying much too hard. Tony Roberts and Jill Clayburgh are troupers, to say the least. Adam Sietz plays the nameless Telephone Repairman who’s wise about marriage. He says that marriages keep breaking down now and then, like telephones. But they have a way of getting fixed.

Those were the days!