Like the current Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, the new version of his Barefoot makes 1960s New York seem not just inconvenient and squalid but also drab and devoid of fun. Unlike the former, featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, Barefoot cannot count on all-star casting to boost the box office. To say I prefer this story of two newlyweds enduring their fifth-floor downtown Manhattan apartment to the antics of Lane and Broderick in their vaster flat uptown owes more to reduced expectations than to what is on stage.
As comic structure, Odd Couple is more skilfully developed; Barefoot takes a handful of gags, such as the flat’s lack of a lift, and pummels us to death with them. How the plot-starved Barefoot could have been Simon’s first Broadway hit, in 1963, is undetectable here.
The play thrusts us back to a time the costumier, Isaac Mizrahi, knows encyclopedically – an era when men had stopped wearing hats to the office but women still wore heels at home, at least to usher in company. The kooky dinner guest, a Simon staple, is here played by Tony Roberts, who replaced Robert Redford as the comedy’s newlywed, Paul Bratter, in Barefoot on Broadway four decades ago.
Roberts speaks his lines professionally and has retained his gift for physical comedy. Jill Clayburgh, as Mrs Banks, mother of the newlywed wife, draws consistent laughs. As Paul Bratter, the likeable actor Patrick Wilson appears uncomfortable, as if he knows just how seriously the whole enterprise is floundering; Amanda Peet, as his wife (the Jane Fonda role in the 1967 movie), races round energetically.
Adrenaline is, alas, insufficient to fuel an enjoyable evening. Scott Elliott, justly celebrated for his work with the off- Broadway New Group, never quite demonstrates why he was so eager to restage this play for a contemporary audience.
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