Barefoot in the Park has new fan with Blue Bridge production

ON STAGE

What: Barefoot in the Park
Where: Roxy Theatre, 2657 Quadra St.,
When: Tonight through July 14
Tickets: $20-$48 from bluebridgetheatre.ca or by phone at 250-382-3370

Barefoot in the Park, the second effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon, has a devout following of fans who enjoy the romantic comedy’s zippy period-speak, New York City setting and barrage of one-liners.

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Fran Gebhard was not in that group, until recently. Before the University of Victoria theatre professor signed on to direct Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of the 1963 classic, which opens tonight at the Roxy Theatre, Barefoot in the Park was somewhat unknown to her. Her response after reading it was instant and effusive, however. “I was very charmed by it. That was my immediate response to it.”

Barefoot in the Park was adapted into a frothy, but successful, 1967 film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, which catapulted their careers. Simon based the romp, about a pair of newlyweds, on aspects of his own life and his early years in New York City. By the time it closed on Broadway in 1967, Barefoot in the Park was one of Simon’s most enduring hits, and one of the longest-running non-musical plays in Broadway history.

Gebhard has acted in plays by Neil Simon in the past — The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Plaza Suite — but has never directed one. She agreed to take on the production if Blue Bridge would supply her with the cast she wanted, topped by two of her former students, Laura-Jane Tresidder and Jonathan Mason.

She also asked for real-life couple Chris Britton and Gwynyth Walsh, who were eventually cast to play two single characters looking for love in their late-50s and early 60s. Gebhard wanted to highlight the relationship of these support players, as she counts it as one of the most accurately portrayed relationships in this or any other story. “It makes it feel like love is available in later life.”

Gebhard said there is a wonderful thing that happens when older actors, who have learned to stretch themselves and rely on instinct, pair up with young actors who pride themselves on being prepared. “Young actors really work on the text, but this gives them a chance to see what a working actor, who has been in the business for 30 years, looks like. Being able to jockey between those two states was great for me.”

Barefoot in the Park has sometimes drawn criticism for being dated, but Gebhard likened the play to a sitcom, and said it eschews slapstick or farce to get its point across. That approach, by a writer with Simon’s sharpness, never goes out of style. “It’s clever, quite witty dialogue.”

Simon’s original stage was modelled after his first New York apartment, which he shared with his first wife. Hans Saefkow has done an incredible job recreating the set piece, Gebhard said.

The rundown Greenwich Village apartment the young couple shares plays a key role when “the first bloom” of domesticity begins to fade. Simon smartly played the couple’s struggles for laughs, Gebhard said.

Gebhard has seen firsthand what it looks like when young people are making their way as adults for the first time, and said Simon nailed the nuances.

“Even though it was set in ’63, there are some really great links to the present. I teach first-year theatre at the university, and I see what kids are like when they leave home and what an adjustment that is. While they are not moving here to get married [as in the play], I thought it was relevant to today’s young people.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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