Skip to main content

Penthouse Sweet: Belly Laughs in the Playhouse

Ed Rampell: Paul Rodriguez and Rita Rudner, both known as comedians and actors, co-star in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park
barefoot in the park

Lily Gibson, Rita Rudner, Paul Rodriguez and Nick Tag (Photos: Jason Niedle)

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK Theater Review

Two years ago Laguna Playhouse hit the jackpot by presenting a stage version of a 1967 screen classic about sex, The Graduate, starring a famous actress, Melanie Griffith, as Mrs. Robinson. Now the venerable SoCal theater is panning for gold in the same river by presenting another theatrical rendering of a 1967 movie about love, featuring this time not one, but two, marquee names. Paul Rodriguez and Rita Rudner, both known as comedians and actors, co-star in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which opened on Broadway in 1963 with Robert Redford, who four years later joined Jane Fonda for Hollywood’s take on the beloved romantic comedy.

Paul Rodriguez and Rita Rudner, both known as comedians and actors, co-star in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park

However, Rodriguez and Rudner, who are both in their sixties, do not play the show’s leads. The newlyweds are portrayed by Lily Gibson as Corie, while Nick Tag - who co-starred opposite (or should we say underneath?) Melanie’s Mrs. Robinson in Laguna’s Graduate - graduates from Ben Braddock to Paul Bratter in Barefoot. Rudner portrays the young wife’s mother, Ethel Banks, while Rodriguez essays the role Charles Boyer played in the movie, Victor Velasco.

Velasco is the upstairs neighbor of the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Bratter. He is a libertine, gourmand and man of the world - although perpetually behind on his rent, occasionally necessitating his sneaking through the bedroom window of the Bratters’ fifth floor walkup apartment to access his attic unit unnoticed by the landlord. Depicting this quirky comic cosmopolitan character with great panache and whimsy, Paul Rodriguez steals the show as the singularly costumed Velasco (gaudily garbed by Kate Bergh). Chewing the scenery with verve in every scene he treads the boards in, Rodriguez is simply a delight to behold in this romantic comedy about youthful newlyweds adjusting to married life in 1960s Manhattan. It’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua meet New York poodle, and Rodriguez is oodles of fun.

Lily Gibson and Paul Rodriguez

Lily Gibson and Paul Rodriguez

As Corie, Lily Gibson - who played a similarly “horny” young blonde in Laguna’s 2019 version of Harvey, starring French Stewart (another play that also got the Tinseltown treatment) - is professionally perky. Following her rapturous honeymoon sequestered behind locked doors at the Plaza Hotel, her youthful character discovers that there’s more to marriage than sex. Rudner scores laughs as a mother who, much to her daughter’s shock, still has life in her and may even enjoy making love. Heavens to Betsy! In less sensitive, culturally correct times this might have been expressed as: “There’s still life in the old broad yet.” Ethel and Velasco may well have been Neil Simon’s original “odd couple.” (Speaking of which, it’s odd how the notion of older people - especially women - having sex is considered to be a laughing matter.)

Recommended for You

As Bratter tries to go about making a living amidst the sitcom-like humor, Tag holds his own amongst the merriment. Stephen Gifford’s expertly wrought set - call it the Playhouse’s “penthouse” - is almost a co-star, as the flawed brownstone aprtment provides comic grist for the mill. Although the gag about walking up so many flights of stairs - SIX if you count the stoop from the sidewalk to the apartment house’s entranceway! - soon wears out its welcome, despite the charm of telephone repairman John Massey (a Laguna veteran whose Playhouse credits include The Graduate and Twelve Angry Men). Massey, however, does get to provide some sage advice to the newlyweds about matrimony (which may be a clever play on an ATT employee delivering a message).

Lily Gibson, Nick Tag and John Massey

Lily Gibson, Nick Tag and John Massey

Having never seen the 1967 movie, I was surprised that the show’s eponymous “Park” apparently refers not to Central Park, but Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, where there is literally more concrete than grass to romp on. All the same, this is vintage Neil Simon, an urban entertainment full of laughter and lovebirds. Michael Matthews (who previously helmed the Playhouse’s Twelve and Graduate) directs this light, enjoyable crow-pleaser with aplomb. Simon’s simple three-act romantic comedy with two intermissions provides much-needed, welcome respite from our hectic, dark times, with Paul Rodriguez alone worth the priceless price of admission.

Barefoot in the Park is playing through March 22 on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949)497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based reviewer who recently won a theatre critic award:https://better-lemons.com/the-better-lemons-fomenter-of-revolution-critic-award-for-2019-goes-to/. The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”,co-authored by Rampell, is available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ . For info about the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of the imprisonment of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten see:https://www.gofundme.com/f/hollywood-blacklist-70th-anniversary-cinema-series.