Kate Middleton and Guy
Olivieri in Barefoot in the
Park. Photo by Wade Dansby.
For such a quintessential New York playwright, Neil Simon’s plays aren’t revived too much at the Off-Off-Broadway level; my sense of how the indie theater community largely regards Simon’s sensibility isn’t exactly what you’d call flattering. Still, one weeps not for Simon, whose astonishing output and success rate was virtually unmatched by any other dramatist during the 20th century, save, perhaps, for Clyde Fitch, and those comparisons are really apples and oranges.
But that not the reason for this story. Ground Up Productions, one of the scrappiest groups around, is mounting a revival of Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and I wanted to know why. After all, the Broadway revival of the play several years ago, starring Amanda Peet and Patrick Wilson, was one of the most roundly and solidly condemned debacles since Gen. Custer and his famous last stand. And then there’s the perception, as I’ve alluded to above, that Simon’s plays are hackneyed or corny or shticky or, worst of all, very much of their time. On the other hand, Ground Up, led by Kate Middleton, its producing artistic director, gave New York the Jim Wann-Patricia Miller tuner The People vs. Mona a few seasons ago, and that was totally a down-home charmer. Could Middleton, who plays Corie in Barefoot to Guy Olivieri’s Paul, know something we don’t? I decided to find out.
Directed by Lon Bumgarner, Barefoot in the Park runs July 8 through 25 at Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal St., bet. Waverly Pl. and W. 8th St.); for tickets call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com. For more information on Ground Up Productions, visit www.groundupproductions.org.
And now, 5 questions Kate Middleton has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Sometimes in Ground Up plays, I feel like I shouldn’t be in the room watching what’s going on… that it’s too private. How do you do that?”
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How do you learn so many lines?” tied with “Why don’t you just be in a Broadway play instead?” tied with “Are they really drinking on stage?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Have you ever gone so deep into character you forgot who you were?”
4) Some people might say you’re brave to revive a Neil Simon play in New York — there are critics who say Simon’s work is too facile, cheesy or old hat. Since the description of your production calls it “intimate,” how will putting audience members close to the action affect perceptions of Barefoot in the Park and of Simon’s work in general?
Considering the number of times that Simon’s work has been produced, and the number of times that they have been produced badly, it is easy to fear that stereotype, yes. However, what Ground Up does best suits this type of play to a tee. Too many times Simon’s work is been larger than life and “over there.” By producing Barefoot in an intimate space, we are able to reduce the forced quality that sometimes can sneak in, allowing the audience to be a fly on the wall, and see everything. It would be our hope that we would send the audience out of the theater with a new understanding of how comedy can be played, and that it does not always have to be “louder, faster, funnier.” We hope to spread Simon’s belief that “life includes the funny and sad and that drama as a reflection of life should do the same.”
5) Did you see the Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park a few years ago with Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet? Why this Simon play and not one of his other 1960s plays?
Yes, I did. It was fun, but frilly. No meat. It was one of the reasons that Ground Up became excited about the play. (We also love doing popular revivals in unexpected ways…) We wanted to make it more tangible. We wanted to dig deeper. We loved the challenge of taking something that everyone knows so well, recreating it in the “Ground Up style,” finding the honesty and surprising the audience by giving them much more than they anticipate. Audiences cannot identify with something that they are not emotionally moved by. There is meat to this play. There is a real marriage taking place and falling apart. There are new gender issues at hand. There are real arcs to these characters. We wanted to find them, play them, and allow our audiences to identify with them. Not to mention that audiences in New York will always identify with messy relationships, crazy neighbors, and 5th floor walk-ups!
6) Are Neil Simon plays still funny?
Absolutely. People love them. But only if the issue is played instead of the comedy. Funny is the hardest thing to do…