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Simon Says Be Salacious 

by Michael Bowen

Critics don't much care for the plays of Neil Simon; audiences love him. Guess which ones pay the bills.Despite his Pulitzer for Lost in Yonkers, the rap on Simon has always gone like this: stereotyped characters, only a bunch of one-liners, always playing to the middle of the road, just too darn fluffy.

Scott Finlayson, the director of the Civic's summer show, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, may have approached the project with similar preconceptions, but he thinks differently now. Finlayson says that he's surprised by "how touching a lot of this show is. Because you can look at it as if it's just a lot of zingers and one-liners, with some sight gags, but the moments are all there for it to be more than that. Especially in Act Three, the mechanics and the structure of Simon's show lets it have a nice payoff at the end."

It's 1969, and the Sexual Revolution is in full force. Barney Cashman -- 47, married with kids for 23 years, the owner of a fish restaurant, overly fond of wearing plain blue suits -- decides that it's time to inject a little fun into the humdrum. So he tries to commit a teensy bit of adultery -- three times he tries this. And in all three cases -- with a woman who's been around the block, a hapless hippie and his wife's very depressed best friend -- the schmuck fails.

Jamie Flanery plays Barney, and he represents a change from the actors who created and toured the role: James Coco, Dom DeLuise, Gary Burghoff (Radar on M*A*S*H). "The tendency has been these sort of harmless, comical men," Finlayson remarks. "That's given Jamie a big challenge. He's got a much more athletic, dominant persona onstage, so for him to play the gentle giant has been a stretch for him. But he's doing a wonderful job, and we're right where we want to be on that."

As Barney looks back on his life, says Finlayson, the most he can say is that he's been "nice." He's desperate to break out of the rut of kindness, though he's not intent on becoming an adulterer:"[Barney] doesn't want to betray [his wife], he just wants to change the pattern of his life. By the end of the show, he's figured out a way to do that."

What Barney wants to do at first, however, is set up a love nest. Realizing that he knows someone who's off at work during the day, he settles on that person's pad for his assignations. It's his own mother's apartment.

Simon's play focuses on Barney's doomed-to-failure attempts to love the one he's with. First up is Elaine, played by Maria A. Caprile. "Elaine's a seasoned adulterer," says Finlayson. "She has experience in doing this kind of thing in the afternoon -- often -- and he has none. And she's kinda surprised by his awkward behavior. She's definitely the most aggressive of the three."

After the onslaught of Elaine, Barney swears that he will never, ever try any hanky-panky ever again. A few months later, naturally, he runs into the hapless hippie, Bobbi (Caryn Hoaglund). "Bobbi comes in, and we think she's gonna be his fantasy girl," Finlayson comments. "She's much younger than he is. She's a wannabe actress and has her own quirks as far as some neurotic, paranoid, drug-culture behavior. She's one of those free spirits, but she's also a nut."

In the final act of Simon's play, the mood turns more serious. Kathie Doyle-Lipe plays the third woman in Barney's life, Jeanette, who's "a friend of the wife, and the longtime wife of one of Barney's friends," says Finlayson. Jeanette's husband is having an affair, "and this is her chance to get even, though she's not really there for that. She's in a deep depression about her husband's affair. She's almost there to make Barney feel guilty.

"The women take a pretty good journey," Finlayson sums up. "In each case, the woman you meet when she comes in the door is not the woman who leaves at the end of each act."

Character development is fine, but doesn't a comedy that's structured like this run the risk of falling apart into three separate one-acts? Finlayson has tried to avoid that scattered quality by pointing up similarities during rehearsals.

The women each appear only in a single act, "but I intentionally had them be there for portions of the other acts' rehearsals," says Finlayson, "because we have a lot of parallel kinds of things happening. So that we have built in moments in Act Three that you can recognize that reflect Act One somehow, or Two reflects One."

All those parallels will help unify the performance, but they'll also serve to emphasize the audience's connection with the material. We're meant, after all, to identify with Barney.

Finlayson warns that "If you were gonna judge him about the adultery issue, or about the midlife crisis issue -- the point which he's at at the beginning of the play and where he is at the end" are very different. "When you find out his reasons for doing what he's doing, you can't help but identify with him."

Yet even if it is a Neil Simon play that's quaintly and conveniently distanced by being set in the '60s, aren't some social conservatives going to avoid Red Hot Lovers, assuming that it's an immoral play focused on adultery? "I think they better sit through to the end, then," Finlayson responds immediately, adding that, "I'm gonna let my grandparents come to the show, who are very much shockable in that way, just because I'm pretty proud of this one.

"I think any audience member is going to come away surprised by this production. I think they will be ultimately moved in a way that they won't expect."

Publication date: 07/17/03

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