Neil Simon's comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers is still sparkling nearly 50 years after it first made fun of the infidelity imperative of the late 1960s. Set in 1969 — when many a middle-aged man believed that, if he hadn't had an affair, he hadn't lived — the play remains hilarious in Northern Stage's snappy production. The sublime comic acting represents theater at its best.
Happily married for 25 years, Barney is deep in his forties and knows his time for dalliances is running out. If he can just find the right woman, he has the right place: his fussy mother's immaculate East Side apartment, empty when she volunteers on Friday afternoons. During a silent opening sequence in which he arrives in the apartment and wipes up his own wet footprints, Barney seems to have thought of everything necessary to hide his indiscretion. He just needs to be brave enough to commit one.
Desperation is comedy's mother lode, and Simon knows how to mine it and then set the jewels in pretty patterns that repeat little motifs. Each of the play's three acts features a different almost-willing woman Barney tries to seduce. And each begins with an elaborate sequence in which he sets up the apartment and steels himself for the encounter ahead.
In a performance that kept Thursday's full house laughing from his first comical entrance, David Mason brings the audience inside Barney's conflicted mind. Getting ready for the doorbell to ring, Barney practices offering a drink or a cigarette, always stopping the movement just short of confidence, as if making peace with his shortcomings is the best he can do. Many actors carve out the space in which a character's thought occurs, as if sketching the interval of time it takes to think were the same as portraying thinking. Mason conveys thought itself.
His work is delicate, because Barney is more nebbish than clown. The solo interludes starting each scene are gems, but Mason also excels in his three seductions. The women keep him lurching from crisis to crisis, and as Barney ends up muttering to himself near the end, "You sure can pick 'em."
Deb Radloff as the worldly Elaine blends rapier wit with a solid sexual come-on that overwhelms Barney. He's flustered, and she's frustrated. Simon keeps them out of sync to inject conflict into what should be flirtatious smooth sailing.
Radloff uses the deadpan assurance women were just learning to master in the 1960s, making Elaine strong with a hint of vulnerability. Possibly just as interested in the cigarette she'll smoke afterward as in the deed itself, Radloff makes her no-nonsense version of let's-get-it-on a veritable Everest for the nervous Barney to climb.
Jenni Putney, as Bobbi, proceeds to take over the apartment from the moment she arrives in a flower-power '60s tank top on a hot day in August. Bobbi is a would-be actress whom Barney meets in the park and thinks he's propositioned. She seems to have missed that cue and proceeds to unpack her conspiracy theories and capacious handbag — complete with teddy bear, spare underwear and marijuana — in Barney's mother's living room.
Putney hits just the right level of hyperbole, rooting Bobbi in reality but letting her hopes, dreams and just plain wild ideas float fully unmoored. Putney makes her a nutcase that Barney can't — and shouldn't — take his eyes off. She's just unstable enough to appear both dangerous and fascinating.
In the final scene, Danielle Slavick plays Jeanette, Barney's wife's best friend. Barney's expectations about her interest in him belong in the mixed-messages hall of fame. Jeanette wants companionship, but only in order to complain about her life, specifically her cheating husband. Slavick grips her pocketbook tight to her stomach and radiates one long sexual "no" while listing all the reasons life isn't worth living.
Jeanette is experiencing depression, and Slavick hits the comically neurotic aspects without diminishing a real foundation of despair. The easy laughs mingle with some revelatory ones, as Slavick is unafraid to acknowledge a genuine plight. Jeanette's ridiculous certainty that her life's pie chart contains only a skinny 8.2 percent slice of happiness is a belief that Barney has to shatter. Slavick puts up strong, and very funny, resistance.
The better the actors, the tougher it can be to spot the director's handiwork, but Maggie Burrows has sprinkled magic powder over every moment in this production. The energy of each scene is based on conflicts that have to bubble underneath the witty dialogue, and Burrows keeps the performers subtly locked in combat that raises the comedy to a fever pitch.
Jordan Janota's set delivers period and place with lush specificity. The apartment gets a dropped ceiling and clean '60s lines. The building's exterior is revealed on the side walls, making this apartment seem to pop out of thousands of others where similar shenanigans could be taking place. It's distinctly New York City, down to the parquet wood floors.
Lighting by Greg Solomon includes some nice tricks to clarify space and light direction. Hunter Kaczorowski's costume design captures the characters, down to Barney's ongoing struggle to hatch out of conservative suits. It's a tribute to Kaczorowski's choice, Mason's lovable portrayal and Simon's ingenious structure that Barney's third-act sports coat got an appreciative laugh from Thursday's audience.
Comedy has to appear effortless to be successful, and disguising the precision necessary to land one laugh — let alone an evening full of them — takes a lot of craft. This production is a master class in helping audiences surrender to amusement. Simon's play is simple entertainment, but it's neatly structured, continually surprising and packed with funny exchanges. The four performances, especially Mason's, are thoroughly winning. It's irresistible.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Comic Seduction"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.