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STAGE REVIEW : Bringing New Life to Old Simon Play : A production of 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers' in Woodland Hills taps into the comedy's human underbelly.

August 21, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

To the listener with the Brighton Beach trilogy or the currently playing "Lost in Yonkers" fresh in mind, Neil Simon has moved so far beyond the facile dialogue war between the sexes of earlier years that the older comedies now sound as if they're from another playwright. In fact, something strange happens when a good, sharp staging of one of the old ones appears--such as director Michael Michetti's production of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" at the Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills.

It sounds--well, if not fresh, then alive, which is something for a comedy about fooling around that's firmly fixed in the late '60s. The proof is in the direction. A bad staging, like last year's at the Tiffany Theatre, can make it seem just dumb and irrelevant.

Right away, though, Charlie Brill's nervously precise Barney Cashman comes off like a man walking in a minefield, which, in a way, he is. This Barney is more of a red-hot gambler than a lover.

Of course, that's part of Simon's joke. In the era of free love and plentiful pot, Barney the married man's elaborate stratagems to shack up with a woman in his mother's apartment reward him with no love and just a little pot. But Michetti has managed to insinuate something more than another joke. There's the lingering worry that Barney's wife or mother might walk in on him when he's with brazen Elaine (Lena Harris), ditsy Bobbi (Teresa Ganzel) or depressed Jeanette (Mitzi McCall).

The actresses always make sure these women aren't bimbos, but rather that they have much in common with Barney, especially the need to have a few thrills to break up humdrum lives. Only Elaine is fearless, which is why the opening scene is by far the most superficial, an easy role reversal with the aggressive gal and shy guy. Harris is securely cool, but Brill plays up the shyness so much he swallows his lines.

After this, the comedy settles in very nicely. Ganzel conjures up a young Goldie Hawn, so out of it that she probably believes she really played in a beach movie based on "Wuthering Heights." McCall's Jeanette has dug herself into such a deep emotional hole that now she doesn't want to crawl out.

In other words, this is a version of "Red Hot Lovers" that taps into the comedy's human underbelly, with Brill displaying plenty of charming, middle-aged vulnerability. He's helped in this regard by John Beckman's well-observed set (though not by Dana Kilgore's overly bright lights), which suggests that Barney is really out of his territory in his mom's shipshape place. Michetti adds comic weight to this, with the stagehand dressed as Mom.

Where and When

What: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers."

Location: Richard Basehart Playhouse, 21028-B Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, indefinitely.

Price: $12-$15.

Call: (818) 704-1845.

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