Saturday, February 24, 2024

Last of the Red Hot Lovers


Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon.  Canberra REP February 22- March 9, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Feb 23 Opening Night

Director: Anne Somes; Associate Director: Cate Clelland
Stage Manager: David Goodbody; Asst Stage Manager: Bede Doherty
Set Design: Cate Clelland; Set Cooridnator: Russell Brown OAM
Lighting Designer: Mike Moloney; Sound Designer: Neville Pye
Set Dressing: Cate Clelland, Anna Senior OAM; Rosemary Gibbons
Costume Designer: Fiona Leach
Production Manager: Anne Gallen

Wikipedia records: The play opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on December 28, 1969, and closed on September 4, 1971, after 706 performances and six previews.

And also under the heading Reception: Clive Barnes, in his review in The New York Times, wrote: "He is as witty as ever...but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill... There is the dimension of humanity to its humor so that you can love it as well as laugh at it."

Eugene O’Neill???  Somehow these characters in the sad comedy of the failure of sexual anything-goes a la 1969 seem somewhat out of place in a theatre dedicated to that great playwright so deeply critical of his own American culture.  

OK, I don’t mean Desire Under the Elms or Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Just The Hairy Ape.  There’s a dimension of humanity to its humour way beyond Neil Simon.

But hey!  What should we expect in 1969?  The year in which David Williamson set his Don’s Party (which opened in August 1971 – a month before Last of the Red Hot Lovers closed). “To the party come Mal, Don's university mentor, and his bitter wife Jenny, sex-obsessed Cooley and his latest girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Susan, Evan, a dentist, and his beautiful artist wife Kerry.”

In other words don’t expect such inventive satire from Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the plot neatly summarised, again by Wikipedia:

Barney Cashman, a middle-aged, married nebbish wants to join the sexual revolution before it is too late. A gentle soul with no experience in adultery, he fails in each of three seductions:
Elaine Navazio, a sexpot who likes cigarettes, whiskey, and other women's husbands;
Bobbi Michele, an actress friend whom he discovers is madder than a hatter; and
Jeannette Fisher, his wife's best friend, a staunch moralist.

If you don’t know what a ‘nebbish’ is, the word is American Yiddish for “One who is fearful and timid, especially in making decisions and plans, in discussions, debates, arguments, and confrontations, and in taking responsibility.”  David Cannell does an excellent job of making us laugh at his character; but does Neil Simon intend, when Barney’s final phone call to his apparently loyal wife apparently fails to inspire her to join him, for us to laugh along with a sense of ironic comedy?  

Or should we empathise with Barney, with his head in his hands as the lights fade, and feel sorry for this 23-years married, 47 year-old, after he has attempted to explore breaking out of tedium with the sexpot, mad actress and his wife’s best friend, each played brilliantly by Victoria Tyrell Dixon, Stephanie Bailey and Janie Lawson respectively?

I have difficulty agreeing with that first review by Clive Barnes.  Despite the play’s success, and being filmed in 1972, I think Neil Simon’s early plays, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, are much better because they were much more original in concept.  

On the other hand, though to me the character and life of Barney is not interesting enough, even to make decent satire, the deliberately over-the-top characters of the three women make the play – and this production – quite fascinating to watch.

And to think about, when you consider the superficiality of Simon’s picture of the new open sexuality – the Sexual Revolution – as he pictures it in 1969.  Could one write such characters, and see them as laughable, today?  

That’s a question which makes the production of the Last of the Red Hot Lovers as REP has done it – strictly reproducing the American accents, style and settings of 1970 – very worthwhile.

David Cannell as Barnie, with
Victoria Tyrell Dixon as Elaine Navazio
Stephanie Bailey as Bobbi Michele and Janie Lawson as Jeanette Fisher
in Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon
Canberra REP, 2024