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By Jim Harper, Times Correspondent                                                                                Monday, March 16, 2015


Neil Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, currently playing at Stageworks in Tampa, is an ironic, often hilarious look at the complicated chasm between our emotional needs and carnal desires.


The premise is naughty. A 47-year-old man — married to his high school sweetheart, reliably running the restaurant his father left him — wonders what it might be like to have an affair. He's human, right? And besides, the sexual revolution of the 1960s is in full swing. Barney is balding, a bit paunchy, fastidious to the point of being old-fashioned. Now might be his last chance.


So he arranges trysts with three successive women, each of whom turns out to be more unlikely than the last.


Because a hotel room would be too "sordid," Barney has decided to use his mother's studio apartment in Manhattan while she is away for the day. Actor Greg Thompson brings a fussbudget's body language to Barney as he scurries around the room, closing the blinds, considering where to put the liquor bottle he's brought in his briefcase, dabbing himself with Old Spice, checking his hair and his necktie in the mirror again and again. At one point Barney opens the sofa bed, lies down and pantomimes his side of a witty postcoital conversation. We already know a lot about this guy, and not a word has been said. Then the doorbell rings.


Natalie Symons is stylish and seductive as Elaine, a woman who enjoys sex with various men just for the sheer pleasure of it, or so she says. Even at the beginning, she seems to speak only in sarcastic one-liners, betraying through bluster the insecurities within. In less than an hour, she also drinks more of Barney's J&B scotch than he has in his whole life. And she grows increasingly impatient as Barney keeps retreating from her advances.


There is a hardness to this encounter that is difficult to balance or enjoy. Barney ends up insulting Elaine. He finds her cynical approach to life disturbing and sad, her focus on sex without romance to be crude. Perhaps the playwright and director Georgia Mallory Guy haven't done enough to humanize her character, although they do try. (Her mother was a prostitute, etc.) At best, Elaine maintains a certain dignity, as if to say, "Who are you to judge?"


But in Simon's writing she also seems merely a foil, her purpose to show Barney's emerging awareness of his own moral sensibility in the midst of his carnal quest. I find something vaguely misogynistic in that.


When Elaine finally leaves the apartment for good, Barney says to himself: "I'll never do that again." We — and human nature — know otherwise.


The second and third acts are each devoted to a different sort of woman. Erin Foster is dreamily delightful as Bobbi, a flaxen-haired wild child whom Barney has met in the park. As Foster plays her, it's difficult to say whether Bobbi knows just how sexy and vulnerable she is, which is exactly the point. As it dawns on Barney what a mess Bobbi is, he tries to get rid of her. He ends up on the sofa with her, smoking pot. He's gotten the conversation he was looking for in his first encounter, but it's certainly not what he expected.


The final woman is Jeanette, the wife of Barney's best friend (and the best friend of Barney's wife, Thelma). Susan Haldeman does well in portraying Jeanette's fear and sadness, but the conversation turns into another morality play, albeit a funny one. In the end, both realize that human beings aren't horrible, just flawed.


That's the sort of moral that Simon likes to reach in his many popular plays. Fair enough. I enjoyed myself. The flaw is that Simon has to prove Barney's goodness through three such messed-up women.

Review: Stageworks' 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers' a hilarious look at human nature

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