Nice People Rule

Ever been in a relationship with someone who is decent and gentle? Someone who is giving and caring and asks for nothing but devotion? Someone who bores the living shit right out of you?

Barney Cashman, the protagonist in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, knows that score. Barney is married to Thelma, a virtuous woman who, Barney believes, has a Christ-like soul. Married to Christ or not, Barney is unhappy. He's 44, in the throes of his midlife crisis and realizing that if he's going to get some fun in his life, it ain't going to come from his high school sweetheart.

So Barney has decided he needs to have an affair. This is the late 1960s, the sexual revolution is in full swing, and even a nice, comfortable middle-aged man like Barney can dream of storming the Bastille of marital fidelity. He plots clandestine affairs with women he meets in the park or in the New Jersey fish restaurant he owns, sneaks away from work in the afternoon to his mother's apartment, and quivers at the thought of finally getting a new piece of ass.

The only problem is that Barney the fishmonger is a nebbish. As he says, the sum total of his 44 years on Earth can be reduced to one word: nice. Barney may dream of being a suave, smooth-talking scammer, but his fingers stink of fish. And in his heart, he knows he is a decent man merely afraid of growing old.

Three times Barney tests the waters of adultery. First, it's with a woman he picked up in his restaurant, a hot and horny drunk empiricist (Cristina Anselmo) who believes that if you can't taste, smell or touch it, it doesn't exist; second with a hippie (Sondi Kroeger Foley) plagued by serious mental problems; and third with one of his wife's closest friends (Pamela Nicholson).

That's the setup for Simon's play, which—being Simonesque—is more situation and one-liners than intricate plot and probing exploration. Each situation is doomed from the get-go, and the play ends with a typically bland Simon "observation" that maybe not every person on the face of the planet is vile.

This Grove Theater Center production directed by Kevin Cochran can't do much to rescue Simon's play from its dated feel (Look: a middle-aged man is smoking pot for the first time! Wow: aspiring actresses from California are spaced-out hippies!). But some fresh performances help make it seem reasonable that this sort of thing was once real. Patrick Lawlor captures Barney's midlife angst while also showing us that he is, truthfully, a decent guy—even if he is trying to get his pole smoked by someone other than his wife of 23 years. The three actresses who play Barney's failed conquests all have distinctly drawn characters and connect with their neuroses.

The pacing? The first act, billed at 70 minutes, feels like 90 minutes of jabbering. But nothing happening is kind of what this play is about. For all his fantasies about lust, romance and excitement, Barney Cashman knows that lifestyle isn't for him.

Coming at the end, that sentimental message seems designed to reaffirm the middle-of-the-road values of the middle-of-the-road people who make up the bulk of the commercial-theater audience. For those of us still laboring under the discredited notion that there's more to life than kitchen, children and church, we still have our dreams and our nightmares.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. $22.50-$25.50; $15 dinner option available if you're there by 6:45 p.m.


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