Every now and then in community theater, you happen across a moment when the stars seem to align. The Laurel Mill Playhouse's stellar opening night performance of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," directed by Ed Higgins, was one such instance.
A lighthearted, romantic romp set in the sixties, Simon wrote "Barefoot in the Park" in 1963, two years before he created Oscar and Felix in "The Odd Couple." The show enjoyed a long run on Broadway, and Simon adapted the script to film a few years later. Robert Redford played attorney Paul Bratter in the play and movie, and Jane Fonda was nominated for best foreign actress by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for her film portrayal of Corie.
In this rendition, Higgins' set adapts to the intimate stage on Main Street without a hitch, stepping back almost 50 years and up five flights of stairs to a tiny, top-floor apartment in New York City. Upstage center, a visually exciting skylight frames set painter Carleigh Jones' artful exterior cityscape, the roof that serves as a functional piece of the set and a cracked windowpane.
From the moment the house lights dim and Higgins steps onstage to make preshow announcements, the production is fresh and funny. Dressing the crew in costumes instead of the usual stage black adds a very nice touch.
The show opens to the just-wed Bratters' unfurnished apartment that Corie—who rented the apartment without Paul seeing it—has just painted.
Irrepressibly cheerful in spite of the comedic huffing of everyone who climbs the stairs to get there, Corie appears oblivious to the downside: a bedroom the size of a closet, a radiator that doesn't heat, no bathtub and a hole in the skylight.
Holding a handful of yellow daffodils as she enters as Corie, Dana Medford delivers an innocently sexy character. Next comes the telephone man, well played by Laurel Mill Playhouse president Marvin Rogers; a deliveryman, smoothly portrayed by Henry Green; and Patrick Pase as Corie's husband, Paul Bratter, who's head-over-heels in love with his free-spirited wife.
Six days into marriage, the newlyweds are still high from their honeymoon at the Plaza. So high, in fact, that Corie manages to distract Paul from focusing on the disaster of their living arrangements. That is, until her mother, portrayed by Laurel Mill Playhouse public liaison Maureen Rogers, drops in unannounced.
After a hilarious visit driven by Simon's clever wacky one-liners, Paul, who has to appear in court the next morning, exits to the empty bedroom to try to work on his first case. Middle-aged, debonair Victor Velasco shows up, asking to climb through the Bratters' bedroom window to break into his attic apartment.
Played by Jim Mahon, Velasco flirts outrageously with Corie as he shows her how to work the heat and plumbing. Paul appears jealous when he walks in on the two unexpectedly; but Corie is charmed, and she hatches a plot to introduce Velasco to her mother.
By Act 2, Corie has worked miracles transforming the rental into a cozy love nest where nothing works perfectly (a metaphor, perhaps, for marriage). But the honeymoon deteriorates as the lovebirds realize that their individual lifestyles have irrevocably changed, and the plot thickens into unexpected twists that lead to Simon's unforeseen ending.
Pase delivers an excellent performance as the love-struck, stuffed-shirt lawyer who resists going "barefoot in the park" in the winter. The chemistry created by Pase and Medford as a down-to-earth groom and effervescent bride, especially when they fight, never fails to communicate that the two are deeply in love.
If Medford and Pase weren't so winning in their leading roles, Rogers and Mahon could easily steal the show with their charismatic performances.
The combined artistry of the cast, Kim Delk's always-apt period costumes, stage manager Grant Meyers' brief appearance as Mr. Munshin and the sparkling energy of the entire ensemble help Higgins' directorial debut shine.
With the exception of a few typical opening-night glitches, Higgins' comic timing was spot on. But what's most impressive about this production is its passion: Laurel Mill Playhouse is having so much fun performing "Barefoot in the Park" that audiences have little choice but to be carried along.
"Barefoot in the Park" continues through April 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and matinees Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1 at 2 p.m. at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $15. Students 18 and under and seniors 65 and over pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.