As funny today as it was at its 1969 Broadway opening, Neil Simon's "Last of the Red-Hot Lovers" is the current production of Ojai's Art Center Theatre company.
The play examines three brief attempts at romantic liaisons by long-married restaurateur Barney Cashman, who's trying to sprinkle a little paprika into the clam dip of his life.
Like Simon's "Plaza Suite," the show consists of what might be termed related one-act plays. Each of the three acts in "Red-Hot" is a separate encounter, weeks or months apart, of Cashman and a different woman.
Elaine, the first we meet, is a wisecracking, gum-snapping (figuratively speaking) regular at Cashman's seafood restaurant. Bobbi, the second, is younger--a singer-actress who manages to retain her optimism in the face of a life full of minor career catastrophes. And Jeanette, the final attempt at a dalliance, is a close friend of Cashman's wife, and is married to one of Cashman's best friends.
Each woman is a distinct personality, though it's easy to understand what Cashman would see in each of them: Elaine's sass and vigor, Bobbi's youthfulness and (despite her eventful life) naivete, and Jeanette's familiarity.
What might be somewhat less easy to understand is what he offers them--they all know what he's looking for, and a long-term relationship isn't it. He's socially quite conservative, maybe that's intriguing. He's successful in his business, and not unintelligent, perhaps that's what these women find interesting.
He's polite and eager to please, which aren't the kind of qualities that drive most women wild, but which may be enough for these three.
Or maybe it's just that Simon was a middle-aged gentleman not unlike Cashman when he wrote the play, and that as a successful playwright (this came after "The Odd Couple" and "Plaza Suite") he can exercise his fantasies any way he pleases.
As Simon wrote the play, Bobbi's the most interesting, the most animated and the most fully explored of the female characters. And Julie Talbott is delightful in a role that might have been described in 1969 as "kooky."
Kimber L. Hay and Juli D. Cuccia, who play Elaine and Jeanette, respectively, are given less raw material to work with, but turn in solid characterizations--Cuccia, it might be noted, portraying a woman somewhat older than she evidently is, and doing so believably.
Doug Friedlander takes the central role of Barney Cashman (created on Broadway by James Coco and in the film by a miscast Alan Alda) and wears it like TV detective Columbo's trench coat: rumpled and cozy. Unless you've seen him elsewhere, the man and part seem to be one.
Elmer Bladow has designed a detailed set, credible except for a large stuffed fish that seems out of place in an apartment that belongs to Cashman's mother. Director Buzz Cuccia is himself a restaurateur, which may help explain his feel for the material. Juli Cuccia is his real-life wife.
Somebody has updated some of the play's topical references: Bobbi's missed an appearance on Arsenio Hall's show and was aced out of a "Star Search" shot, and Li'l Elmo and the Cosmos (a real-life Southern California group who specialize in Sha Na Na-style renditions of rock oldies) want her to sing with them.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Last of the Red-Hot Lovers" is appearing at the Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday, Nov. 4 and 19 only. Tickets are $7.50, or $6 for Arts Center members and seniors. The run ends Nov. 24. Call (805) 646-0117 for reservations or further information.