Play reading gets “Red Hot” at the Clark

In the Neil Simon play The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which was performed at the Clark on Valentine’s Day, one plain and rule-abiding married man is determined to experience a single afternoon of sexual revolution, using his mother’s apartment as the meeting place for his attempted affair. As he tries to achieve his goal, Barney Cashman, 47, learns more than he ever intended to about desire, women, his own inexperience and human nature. Filled with dry humor and hilariously awkward dialogue, the reading of The Last of the Red Hot Lovers had me – and the rest of the audience – laughing out loud throughout the entire production. Although each attempted affair ends in a similarly disastrous fashion, each woman Barney invites to his mother’s apartment brings with her a distinct set of problems and traits.
Elaine, the first women he attempts to have an affair with, is a relative stranger whom he picks up at his restaurant. She is loud, direct, sarcastic and eager to get down to business, and it soon becomes clear that they do not see eye-to-eye on why they are both in his mother’s apartment. While Elaine expects basic sexual relations, Barney is looking for something more: ­a meaningful afternoon marked by mutual respect.
His encounter with the second woman, Bobby, is similarly disastrous. Although she is much warmer and bubblier than Elaine, it soon becomes clear that Bobby is also a vain, empty-headed magnet for trouble, and one who is just a little crazy at that. She never seems to suspect that Barney wishes to have an affair with her, perhaps because she ignores much of what he says, simply cutting across him as she spews racial slurs, gossip and sordid stories from her past, smoking pot all the while.
The third woman, Jeannette, is different from the other two entirely: She is a close friend of Barney’s wife and in fact initiates the affair. However, once she arrives at the apartment she is stiff and upset, revealing her struggle with depression and her husband’s infidelity. She confronts Barney with questions like “Do you have any guilt about asking me here today?” while she pops pills and refuses to sit down.
Each woman is an amusing character, but what truly imbues this play with comedy is how incredibly and horribly wrong each encounter between Barney and these women seems to go. Barney’s meeting with Elaine quickly devolves from bad to worse. On top of their clashing ideas as to what the afternoon was supposed to be like, his mother’s apartment has no bed but only a pull-out couch, he can only offer scotch (which she doesn’t like), Elaine’s constantly craving a cigarette and Barney accidentally ends up criticizing and judging her out of frustration, calling her “flippant, wise and cold.” To make matters even worse, when Elaine gives Barney a second chance to begin their interaction, he kisses her so hard that her lip starts bleeding, ruining whatever was left of the evening.
Barney’s meeting with Bobby is equally awful (and amusing). It becomes clear almost immediately that Bobby is somewhat crazy (she reveals to Barney her earnest theory that her dog has been kidnapped by a former lover, whom she believes controls the police force) and also a complete danger magnet (she relates a number of stories about her crazy former boyfriend, and is constantly looking out the window to check if she is being followed). To top off the entire fiasco, Barney is forced to smoke some pot in order to convince Bobby to leave, making him high for the first time.
It was obvious that Barney’s meeting with Jeannette would be a hilarious disaster from her very first line to him, “I don’t find you physically attractive,” which she then repeated over and over until Barney finally cried out “Alright, I understand!” This admission – coupled with her constant queries as to what her husband has said about her recently and dark musings about death and melancholia – lead us to sympathize wholeheartedly when Barney says despairingly, “Boy, can I pick ’em!”
The performance of this play wasn’t flashy or dramatically set – the four actors stood speaking their lines on an empty stage – but nevertheless it was captivating, engaging and even at many points laugh-out-loud funny.