through July 22
by Jarice Hanson
The genius of Neil Simon is that his characters evoke empathy. In “Last of the Red Hot Lovers”, Brooks Ashmanskas ably portrays Barney Cashman, a middle-aged restaurateur caught in the shifting mores of the ‘60s sexual revolution. He’s never cheated on his wife, but he would like to find “something beautiful and decent” with another woman, at least once. Ashmanskas is a terrific physical performer who embodies the humor of Barney’s self-consciousness and desire. His portrayal of a man having his first experience with marijuana is side-splittingly funny.
Barney’s big problem lies in the women he tries to seduce. Comic Susie Essman plays Elaine, a cynical woman who would rather have a smoke than a smoking Barney. Leslie Bibb is Bobbi, the wacko actress-wannabe Barney meets in a park. Finally, there is Jeanette, played by Heidi Schreck; a depressed friend of Barney’s wife, who is achingly funny in her melancholia. It’s no spoiler to say that Barney’s sexual frustration grows as we learn about the women’s baggage. The dialog drives home the pain of a nice guy who just wants to be bad once, even though the only place he can have a tryst is in his mother’s apartment.
Director Jessica Stone has found the timelessness in this 1969 script. She focuses on the desire to connect with someone in a loving, decent way, while the rest of society gives way to hedonistic pleasure. On opening night, the cast was working hard, but the three sets of relationships had not yet crystallized. The three female roles are challenging, since the actors need to create a rapport with the audience beyond character type while keeping comic tension. Ashmanskas’ Barney develops nicely, with humanity, desire, and a quintessential Neil Simon resolution.