Watching Starting Gate’s production of Barefoot in the Park is a bit like watching an old episode of Seinfeld. The feeling that persists throughout the show is, “Wow, I used to consider this really funny.” It’s not that the play is completely without laughs, it’s just that humor as a genre seems to have evolved and left Neil Simon’s brand of gimmicky laughs behind. While some portraits of New York (Woody Allen’s, for instance) contain elements that make them relatively timeless, Barefoot’s NYC is a bland city, devoid of race, culture, or sex. While there are some universal elements to the struggles of newlyweds, the play is pervaded by the drab cultural mores of the late 1950s.
The one thing that rescues this production is the talented cast, who breathe new life into all the old jokes. Some things are, and always will be, universally funny, and the cast takes these moments and squeezes them for all they are worth. Cynthia Uhrich is delightful as Mrs. Banks, the neurotic mother, especially after she’s had one too many Martinis—Uhrich does one of the best “drunks” that I have seen in years. Nicholas Leeman also gets big laughs as the straight man, the perfect counterpart to Jane Froiland’s whirlwind Corie. Though Froiland’s characterization is at times a little over-the-top, she generally succeeds in creating a character that Simon didn’t bother to give much depth to. The best performance is by Robert Gardner as Victor Valesco, a mustachioed old ladies’ man of the funniest caliber. Whether “popping” knichi or crawling across the window backstage, Gardner steals every scene that he’s in.
Barefoot in the Park, a play written by Neil Simon and directed by Richard Jackson. Presented by Starting Gate Productions through November 30 at the Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Rd., St. Paul. For tickets ($18) and information, see startinggate.org.
According to a statement from the company, Starting Gate chose its lineup of productions this season specifically to address “the state of our nation, our government, and our wallets,” which leads one to expect something in tune with the present social climate. To then choose a play that is so completely foreign to our current day and age is a bit of a mystery, unless it is simply to deliver a little bit of comfort in a troubled time. At that purpose, Barefoot in the Park certainly succeeds. Barefoot is, and always will be, a simple feel-good comedy. Even old jokes can still be enjoyable, and thanks to a talented Starting Gate cast, they are.
Jon Behm is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis.