When one hears the name Neil Simon, classic theater works like "The Odd Couple" or "Lost in Yonkers" usually come to mind. Maybe even "Biloxi Blues" or "The Goodbye Girl" ring a bell.
"Barefoot in the Park" came before all of them. And if you ask most theater aficionados, it's one of Simon's most underrated plays.
"Is it overlooked? Yeah. Probably. Should it be? Definitely not," says Tee Quillin, associate professor of theatre and cinema at Missouri Western State University, who is directing Western Playhouse's upcoming production of "Barefoot in the Park." "This one ranks, in my mind, as maybe his funniest play."
Simon won an Evening Standard Award for the 1963 romantic comedy, which sparked his career as one of the world's greatest playwrights. Nearly 50 years ago, audiences were drawn to the authenticity of "Barefoot in the Park" when it opened at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre with stars Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Mildred Natwick and Kurt Kasznar. Few plays written before had so accurately, and hilariously, detailed the trials and tribulations of a newlywed couple with clashing personalities.
"People were able to put themselves in their shoes. That's what made it so funny," Quillin explains. "It wasn't necessarily a performance. They were real people up there living a real experience."
The struggle between chaos and order belies this tale in which conservative young lawyer Paul Bratter (played by Western Playhouse's managing director Dallas Henry) and his irrepressible bride, Corie (played by Jessica Elder-Agnew), struggle after the ecstasy of the honeymoon gives way to the reality of setting up a home in a five-flight walk-up on East 48th Street in New York City.
Marriages require patience and understanding before they hit their stride. As you'll see in this comedy, patience and understanding aren't qualities over which either Paul or Corie claim ownership.
"It reflects how young people have more volatile relationships because they react faster and they jump to conclusions faster and maybe they make assumptions faster and then they want to call it off," says Elisa James, who plays Corie's mother, Mrs. Banks, in the play.
Their differences are vast and immediately noticeable. Paul is a priggish young professional who's set in his buttoned-down ways. Corie, meanwhile, is intoxicated on life. Her idea of a good time is to get drunk and ring all the neighbors' doorbells, sample exotic foreign food and, yes, run barefoot in the park in the dead of winter. Like a Katharine Hepburn-esque heroine, she wants to teach her uptight man how to cut loose.
The daily ups and downs of marriage are hard enough for a compatible couple. Just imagine how rocky the matrimony starts for these two.
"It takes years and years and years to work all that out. I think the first seven years are the hardest. They get in and they can't even manage the first seven days," James laughs.
Of course, the tension of their marriage isn't exactly relieved by Mrs. Banks' drop-in visits. James, an Australian-born professional performer who recently moved to Kansas City, says she drew inspiration for the nitpicky, highfaluting character from her mother's little traits. She delivers lines with her nose high in the air and even describes some uses of "emotional blackmail."
"She comes from a time when my mother and my grandmother grew up — with gloves and beautiful coats, a dead fox lying around her neck, coiffed hair, hats, buckled shoes and dresses past the knee," James describes. "It was a very prim and proper period."
Corie distracts her mother by setting her up on a date with Victor Velasco (played by experienced actor Allan Hazlett), the tempting Bohemian womanizer next door. As the play rolls on, Quillin says, the most interesting aspect is watching how both of these relationships develop — for better or worse.
"We see two different stages of two different relationships that mirror each other, but both at different stages of miscommunication," Quillin laughs.
Actors Jeff Jones and Larry Clifton also take on short humorous roles, respectively, as a telephone repairman and a delivery man in the play. "Barefoot in the Park" will also boast an authentic 1963 set, complete with a tacky blue sofa, a vintage refrigerator and stove and an impressive New York-style skylight.
Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. from July 5 through 8 at the Potter Hall Theater on Missouri Western's campus. For more information or to purchase tickets to the play, visit www.westernplayhouse.com.