by Brad Quinn
ICCT - As I took my seat for this show, I noted that the small theater was less than half full, which is disappointing for an opening night performance. Especially for a comedy by a big name playwright such as Neil Simon, despite this being one of his lesser known works. And as I was to discover, the people not filling those vacant seats were missing out.
I hope that more people will take advantage of those empty seats for the coming performances, and perhaps some who might not otherwise go will read this review and head out to the fairgrounds to see it, because this is a good show. Top to bottom.
Before I get to the true heart of the show, let me first take note of a few of the more mundane details. Last of the Red Hot Lovers is about a middle aged restaurateur in the early 1970’s named Barney Cashman, played by veteran actor Josh Sazon, who has decided that he is going to have an affair. It’s not something he’s ever done before, and it’s certainly not something he’s any good at. The play presents three separate scenes, each detailing one of his rather inept attempts at seduction.
The single set, and all of the action, takes place in the living room of Barney’s mother’s New York apartment. This is ably rendered by the set designer and constructor Rich Riggleman (who is also the director, and pulls down quadruple duty by running the sound and light boards as well). The furnishings, color scheme, and bad carpet (which could only have been more vintage by being shag) were perfectly reminiscent of the cheap and gaudy 70’s style. There was also a nice touch rendered by a window complete with blinds and curtains and sunlight streaming through.
That actually was one of my only problems with the lighting design. All of Barney’s assignations took place mid-afternoon, and though they tried to simulate this by the light coming through the blinds, the apartment was nevertheless far too dark in the moments before Barney turned the lights on. Sunlight floods a space with ambient light, but this appeared more to be a room late at night with a pair of headlights shining through the window.
To complete the 70’s retro feel, costume designer Rachael Lindhart did an excellent job in outfitting the cast. The outfits worn by the women were spot on. Barney was outfitted in standard men’s suits, of course, but the first suit was a very dapper blue double breasted number that definitely set a tone for the kind of character Barney was. My only complaint was that, after declaring in the first scene that he always wore a blue suit, he was then seen next in a brown suit and then a checked sport coat.
Of course that is all just window dressing, the real reason to come see this show is the stellar performances given by its cast. Riggleman chose his cast very well, and put the right people into the right roles. The aforementioned Josh Sazon is in perfect form as the gentle nebbish Barney Cashman, a role he fits in both physicality and temperament. Sazon has excellent comic timing and delivery, and if there is any problem with his delivery it’s that he has such precise and clear diction that it’s difficult to believe we’re actually hearing a New Yorker speak.
Paula Grady, another veteran actor, plays the role of Elaine Nevazio, a hard drinking, hard smoking sexpot who is Barney’s first attempted affair. In some ways this is the most difficult role to play in the show because it would be very easy to play it in such a way that would lacks any sympathetic nature at all for her character and indeed become almost a caricature. Grady resists this temptation and navigates these treacherous waters well.
Barney’s second try at extra-marital love involves a young, free spirited wanna-be actress named Bobbi Michele, played by K. Lindsay Eaves. He quickly discovers she is completely cracked, a flighty neurotic with a seemingly infinite capacity for self-deception and a penchant for horrible romantic partners. This is a very funny scene, and Eaves brings plenty of energy and inhabits the character of Bobbi so well as to make one wonder where the character ends and she begins.
This act also contains what I found to be the best directed scene in the show. Riggleman did an excellent job throughout of keeping his actors in the right zone, but I most enjoyed the final few minutes of this act where both characters were stoned and sitting together on the couch. There was almost no movement, but it was very funny.
Last but certainly not least was Carole Martin’s turn as Jeanette Fisher in the final act. Her low key delivery and facial expressions had the audience laughing almost from the moment she stepped on stage. Jeanette is an uptight, depressed woman who has become completely disillusioned with humanity. Martin does a fine job of finding the humor in a humorless woman, and her interplay with Sazon allows both characters to finally reach the peace they’ve both been looking for.
The art of comedy is, in my opinion, the most difficult of all the various shades of theater. Without great skill, it is easy to ruin an otherwise hilarious script, and with great skill one can make even a mediocre script hilarious. I understand that, because of this, going to see an amateur performance is a risky proposition at best, which may explain some of the reason why the theater had so many unfilled seats. Well, I can assure that I would have a difficult time deciding if Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a mediocre script because it was so enjoyable to watch. I hope that tells you something, and I hope that you’ll grace these hard-working actors with your presence, because I do not think you will be disappointed.