Now offering its fifth production since opening in the 2011-2012 season, Compass Rose Theater seems comfortably rooted in its strip-mall Eastport Shopping Center location. The cozy storefront lends an offbeat charm to the company's current offering, Neil Simon's 1963 comedy classic, "Barefoot in the Park."
This early play enjoyed success on Broadway before becoming a 1967 movie with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. It came at the threshold of Simon's storied career, which ultimately included more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer's. At one time, Simon had four successful productions running simultaneously on Broadway — a feat that remains unequaled.
In 1991, Simon was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers," a play that Compass Rose offered as its inaugural production, garnering critical praise for the fledgling studio theater.
Directing "Barefoot" is New York-based director James Phillips, who has also worked as an actor — an experience that no doubt helped him create this exceptional production.
In his program notes, Phillips expresses his esteem for Simon, saying, "It is not so easy to write an act as crisp and entertaining nor write such lively dialogue for actors in a tempo that allows the characters to stay slightly ahead of the audience, a necessity for laughter."
That appreciation is reflected in his cast members, who find comedy and truth in this story of newlyweds adjusting to each other's differences. Young lawyer Paul Bratter, married only six days to Corie, is acutely aware of the shortcomings of their cramped apartment, chosen by his adoring wife. She, on the other hand, is oblivious to the leaking skylight, the faulty plumbing and the challenges of climbing five flights of stairs.
New Jersey resident Ethel Banks, Corie's timid, widowed mother, is the couple's first visitor, but not their last. Frequent appearances are also made by eccentric, free-loading bon viveur Victor Velasco, a neighbor who gains access to his attic apartment by going through the newlyweds' bedroom window. The couple is also visited by Telephone Man, a pleasant sage familiar with the problems of young couples.
As in many Simon plays, "Barefoot" is somewhat autobiographical, based on the early years of the playwright's 20-year marriage to his first wife, Joan, who died of cancer.
In this Compass Rose production, Brianna Letourneau meets all challenges of the Corie role. Letourneau lent distinction to her portrayal of Bella in last season's "Lost in Yonkers," and here she projects Corie's zest for living, her joy after a six-day honeymoon and her initial determination to please Paul.
Letourneau also later conveys Corie's building annoyance at Paul's dedication to his career, which takes his attention from her, and turns to fury after an evening out with neighbor Velasco.
As a child-woman character, Corie could grow tiresome to contemporary audiences. But here, Letourneau invests her with enough zest to make understandable Paul's growing exasperation at her lack of judgment, temper tantrums and demand for attention.
Equally accomplished is Brandon McCoy as Paul Bratter. McCoy, who displayed strong directorial skills in the Compass Rose productions of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Lost in Yonkers," shows his acting chops here. He projects Paul's determination to succeed as an attorney with a straight-laced, stuffed-shirt quality, yet also shows the character's intense passion for Corie — a quality that motivates his decision to loosen up and compromise. Together, McCoy and Letourneau project an unmistakable chemistry.
Compass Rose founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne was initially cast as Ethel Banks, and was perfect in every breathless arrival after climbing five flights of stairs, and in delivering razor-sharp reservations about their apartment. A recent injury sidelined Merry-Browne, however, and the role is now filled by the equally capable Sue Struve, who also played in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
As Victor Velasco, veteran actor R. Scott Williams creates an over-the-top character high on life until — reluctantly — he must acknowledge the realities of middle age.
Veteran actor Thomas "Toby" Hessenauer returns to Compass Rose to offer a charming portrayal of Telephone Man, following on his delightful performance as Mr. Bumble in "Oliver!" last year. His warmth and gentle wisdom lend perspective to the newlyweds' adjustment difficulties.
Finally, we acknowledge the crew's contributions in creating a workable, cramped apartment space — complete with a skylight where actors can appear to be precariously perched on the apartment roof.
Weekend performances continue at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 3 at Compass Rose Theater, 1011 Bay Ridge Road, in Eastport Shopping Center. Tickets are $30 general admission and may be ordered by calling 410-980-6662 or at compassrose.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun