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He Gags Us 

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's not just that Barefoot in the Park is 45 years old; it's that its characters aren't very interesting. Yes, the conflict between crew cuts and longhairs was important in the '60s, and eventually became fraught with all the doves-versus-hawks Vietnam War baggage. And yes, humans have long debated the respective merits of conventional and unconventional behavior. But Neil Simon doesn't really care about any of that. He just wanted to fabricate a virtually plotless comedy onto which he could hang a bunch of gags.

Despite its best features -- a spirited performance by Danae M. Lowman as Corie, the transformation of David Baker and Peter Hardie's set by JoAnne Emery's '60s furniture and props, and several of Simon's jokes -- the Civic's production of Barefoot in the Park presents a comedy that has lost much of its capacity for surprise or delight.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & arefoot is the granddaddy of a lot of TV sitcoms, and Simon's Sid Caesar apprenticeship certainly taught him the tricks of his comedic trade: undercutting sentiment with laughter, for example, or writing jokes that hit their punch lines inside our imaginations -- like the set-up about all the apartment's plumbing fixtures being backwards, so "remember to flush up."

But sometimes he indicates (in the theatrical sense), telling us what we're supposed to feel. During the inevitable newlyweds' spat late in the show, for example, hubbie says to wife, "I think you're serious," as the argument escalates -- but she's not serious, and we know she isn't serious because Simon isn't serious. What he's written for his characters isn't actual divorce-talk, but playacting divorce-talk -- a kind of jokey banter delivered by vaudeville performers.

As a result, the play's central question isn't "Will the newlyweds split up?" because of course they won't, and it isn't "Will the older generation pair off?" because a double-your-pleasure romantic comedy is double the fun, so of course they will. Simon wants to go deeper and probe the nature of marriage, but he can't get there because his toolkit of gags and one-liners doesn't allow for it.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut the Civic's production isn't entirely unsuccessful. The set and props, for example, work wonders. Faced with Corie's need to demonstrate unquenchable optimism in the face of ugly wallpaper and poor bathroom fixtures, Emery has found the beanbag chair and sunburst clock and psychedelic posters and ultra-groovy Space Age furniture to evoke just the kind of trendy-then, ridiculous-now clutter that would pass for fashionable in Corie's Swingin' Sixties mind. A couple of scenes end with action on both sides of a prominent (and cracked) skylight.

Lowman is full of energy as Corie. She pulls off a reasonably good drunk scene, letting her voice get all squeaky when she caroms off into wronged-wife territory. Her righteous anger ("Don't you tell me when to cry") was especially funny.

As straight-arrow lawyer Paul Bratter, Paul Villabrille looks buttoned-down enough, though his finest moments arrive when he bursts into taunting or silly behavior.

As Corie's mother, Jean Hardie totters onstage in a mink coat, exhausted from stair-climbing and heading full speed ahead for a collapse onto that beanbag over there. She deepens her voice hilariously for some dry witticisms about marriage, and she even takes a girlish quality when being flirted with.

As Victor Velasco, meanwhile, Robert Wamsley can bring on the eccentric/oddball mannerisms, but he seems miscast as a character described as having Douglas Fairbanks-style athleticism.

Brian Lambert brings warmth and humor to what could, in other hands, revert to just another dumb-palooka repairman role. Peter Hardie wordlessly overplays another repairman, but he's still amusing in the role. Apparently it was Simon's intention to hit us over the head with the climbing-six-flights-of-stairs joke. Repeatedly. Over and over. Several times.

It's not Hardie's fault if the joke grew tiresome. It's Simon's, and it's the responsibility of theaters and theatergoers who keep clamoring for museum reproductions of Barefoot when newer, fresher comedies are available.

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