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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Theatre review: Last of the Red Hot Lovers is filled with talent

Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers may have been written almost fifty years ago, but it just goes to prove that with the right cast and director it still has plenty to say to audiences today.

Over the course of Simon’s three acts, Barney separately invites a trio of women to, of all places, his mother’s 37th Avenue apartment for afternoon trysts. Stealing time while his mother is out volunteering at Mount Sinai Hospital, Barney must keep one eye on the clock and the other on the exact positioning of the convertible sofa pillows, lest his mother suspect something. He even brings his own bottles of booze and drinking glasses, stashed inside his briefcase. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s in full swing, as he begins to see his own mortality, 47-year-old fish restaurateur Barney Cashman feels like he’s missing out on something. Never unfaithful before, with only a single dalliance with a Newark prostitute before meeting his wife in high school, Barney decides to join the revolution.

The three women Barney chooses couldn’t be more different.

Barney’s first choice is the buxom Elaine Navazio, who we quickly discover is no stranger to afternoon delights. Irene Karas Loeper sets the bar high as she channels a sort of Peggy Bundy with beehive hair and tight pencil skirt. Between coughing fits, Elaine has difficulty understanding why Barney doesn’t just rip off her clothes and have his way with her on his mother’s sofa. Under the deft direction of Ian Farthing, Karas Loeper milks Simon’s comedy mine with skill.

Barney (Paul Herbert) and Elaine Navazio (Irene Karas Loeper) in Last of the Red Hot Lovers
Act one: Barney (Paul Herbert) with Elaine Navazio (Irene Karas Loeper)

Next into Barney’s den of iniquity is California valley girl, Bobbie Michele. A free spirit with a proclivity for equal amounts of marijuana and conspiracy, Christine Bissonnette brings a delightful craziness to the aspiring actor and singer. While Bissonnette has the unenviable task of following Karas Loeper, she is no wallflower.

Barney (Paul Herbert) with Bobbie Michele (Christine Bissonnette)
Act two: Barney (Paul Herbert) with Bobbie Michele (Christine Bissonnette)

In his final encounter, Barney takes on his wife’s best friend, Jeanette Fisher. Played by the diminutive Nicola Rollett, she bursts with an energy that belies her mental state, and is a perfect foil for Barney’s final realization that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Rollett gives a physical performance that is matched only by her emotional one.

Act three: Barney (Paul Herbert) and Jeanette Fisher (Nicola Rollett)
Act three: Barney (Paul Herbert) with Jeanette Fisher (Nicola Rollett)

Of course, the thread between the three aborted encounters is Paul Herbert’s tour de force performance as Barney. Herbert misses few beats, as easily handling the comedy as the pathos that permeates through Simon’s script. This is an every man thrown into sometimes wild circumstances, but Herbert is so comfortable inside Barney’s skin that every movement, glance and reaction is not only ultimately believable, it is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Under Farthing’s direction the three acts fly by.  A testament to the performances he gets from his actors, there are times when you wish Barney could spend more time with each of the three women.

The program for the evening does not list a costume designer, but each of the three women are perfectly coiffed for their personas. Barney’s transformation over the three acts is a delightful surprise that even elicited a response from the audience. Josina de Bree’s set design in the three-quarter round set-up inside the Studio 16 black box is spare but evocative.

While the cast of this Equity artists’ collective is a huge reason to take in this production, Simon’s underlying message is surprisingly resilient in this age of Ashley Madison and swiping right. There may be a vintage charm about it, but this production uses it to its advantage and more often than not, rises about it.

Funny and at times wonderfully manic, Last of the Red Hot Lovers isn’t just hot, it’s caliente. You really should go see it.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon. Directed by Ian Farthing. A Lovebird Artists Collective production. On stage at Studio 16 (1555 West 7th Ave, Vancouver) until March 6. Tickets are available online.

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