WILLIAMSTOWN -- The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and that's the problem faced by Barn ey Cashman, the main character of Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," now playing on the Williams town Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage.
Barney, 47, has a very "nice" life -- a solid marriage of 23 years, three children and a successful restaurant. But he also has the nagging feeling that he's missing out on something -- that he'll go to his grave without experiencing all life has to offer. His answer is to have an affair.
The offering isn't traditional fare for the festival. Artistic Director Jenny Gersten ad mitted in an interview on Friday that its addition to the summer's roster came only after much prodding by Dir ector Jessica Stone.
"I thought, really? Neil Sim on? It feels cheesy on the outside," Gersten said. "But Jess ica's position has always been that there's a real gem of a play in there, and she was right."
Neither is wrong in their opinion. When Simon's play first appeared at the festival in 1972, it was only 10 months after it completed its run on Broadway and was destined for the silver screen that year.
Perhaps the "campy" feeling of the play comes from its time period; it's set in 1969. But there's an appeal in Simon's work that transcends the place and time; beneath the "cheesiness" is the story of the age-old struggle of appreciating what one has.
When the production begins, we
Essman and Ashmanskas are wonderfully suited for each other, as she tongue-lashes Barney's bumbling antics -- from not having cigarettes to wearing a blue suit on a daily basis. Essman's performance is superb -- she makes it clear that Elaine is looking for nothing more than to be the object of desire for an afternoon.
Barney's next attempt is with the neurotic, pot-smoking, would-be actress, Bobbi (Les lie Bibb), whom he met in the park the day before.
She seems like she's a sure thing; but she comes with more baggage than he's looking for.
Bibb gives us a Bobbi who is more jittery than necessary, with a high-pitched voice and toothy grin, who seems to be riding a Ritalin high. Bibb is effervescent as Bobbi, but she's missing a sultriness that is needed make the character's neurotic tendencies somewhat attractive.
As we come into Barney's third and final attempt at an affair, a more suave and dapper Ashmanskas slides across the stage, preparing for the arrival of Jeannette (Heidi Schreck), the wife of friend. Schreck is dazzling in her portrayal of the depressed and disheartened Jeannette, who is looking for a last shred of decency in a society that has become unapologetic and complacent with individuals fulfilling their every desire.
But the real highlight of the production is Ashmanskas, who brings as much physical comedy to the stage as he does emotion. He brings Barney from a frumpy man in mid-life crisis mode to one of confidence. We want him to fail, so he can succeed at finding happiness and fulfillment.
Stone's inclinations were correct -- it is a gem of a play.
If you go ...
What: ‘The Last of the Red Hot Lovers' by Neil Simon, directed by Jessica Stone. Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes (no intermission)
When: Through July 22: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees Thursday and Sunday at 2; Saturday at 3:30.
Where: Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown