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What a riot: ‘Barefoot in the Park’ climbs to top in Hilton Head theater’s season finale

Scene from “Barefoot in the Park” by the Lean Ensemble Theater.
Scene from “Barefoot in the Park” by the Lean Ensemble Theater. Submitted

The Lean Ensemble Theater has a storied reputation for presenting a broad spectrum of the possibilities, the potential, and most particularly and through it all, the glory of the theater.

Lean is known for exploring cutting edge new works, compelling, less familiar older pieces and the brilliant intricacies of comedy.

You’ll be delighted to find that comedy is the prism through which the final production of this season, “Barefoot in the Park, ” by Neil Simon, is focused.

The piece, originally enjoyed by so many, captures the people, places and things of the early 1960s, and in the meantime, is properly sensitive, and so, so funny.

The storyline carries a message that is generational, generative and focused on generosity.

Truly, sui generis, this work, start to finish, is explorative and through it all, entertaining.

The news just gets better, when I tell you that Blake White, the founding artistic and executive director of Lean Ensemble Theater, himself a top-drawer storyteller, is the director of our production.

And the good news continues when you find that the outstanding cast — Thomas Azar, Sheila Kadra, Jim Stark, Jennifer Webb and Mimi Wyche — are amazing storytellers, too ... and astonishing actors.

The flow of the show

Many in our preview audience had seen the original Broadway production of the early ’60s, as well as the film that came out in 1967. So to say that the audience was on the edge of their collective seats, waiting to be entertained, would be a triumph of understatement.

Now would be the perfect time to assure you that everybody, everybody, laughed and laughed as they took in the action on stage, which was strikingly bold and sweeping, then balanced by its more nuanced interactions.

The story begins as we meet the strikingly attractive, completely free-wheeling first half of the newlywed couple, just off of a six-day luxurious honeymoon stay at New York’s Plaza Hotel.

Corie Bratter (Jennifer Webb) is vital and uninhibited as she moves against the starkly uncluttered background of the naked fifth-floor walk-up apartment she has selected for the happy couple to share.

It is February, and very cold, and she is finding that there are certain disappointments about the pleasantries of their love nest. Webb is amazing as she flits anxiously about the barren apartment, nervously overlooking the distractions of space, layout, leaky pipes, a stove that gets warm but doesn’t bring water to a boil, oh, and the broken window of their top-floor ceiling.

Always eager and spontaneous as she anticipates the delivery of their furniture, and the arrival of her careful husband, a lawyer, straight laced ... some would say stuffed-shirt. She is visited by the Telephone Man (Sheila Kadra), gifted with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor, looking clear-eyed at what happens next; her widowed mother, Ethel Banks (Mimi Wyche), kind of frumpy, kind of critical and absolutely determined to help or straighten out her daughter; and finally the threat to all womankind, the attic resident, a 58-year-old possible Albanian bluebeard, “man-about-the world,” Victor Velasco (Jim Stark).

All who arrive at the brand new apartment are breathless, gasping for air, as they enter the fifth-floor (some say sixth-floor) apartment. No one the more so than the former groom, now partner for life, and co-habitant, Paul Bratter (Thomas Azar).

From his carefully trimmed hair, his perfect tie, his suspenders and proper black brogues, he is clearly the level-headed member of the twosome, who does not find the architectural design of their new apartment so “digestible.”

Straitlaced from the top of his head to the tip of his toes ... a planner, a thoughtful kind of clear thinker, he does, for minutes, lie breathless on the floor, having completed his ascent for the very first time.

You’ll love the outcome of the story, you’ll learn to love the character types of the perfectly selected cast, as they begin to modify their behaviors, as the events of the day-night-next day evolve. What a riot.

But I must let you know that changes are in store. One-liners fall trippingly off of their tongues. Remember, Neil Simon was an expert at skit comedy before he began his ongoing success at award-winning playwriting.

I don’t want to give it away, but look forward to the aftermath of an ill-advised, undetermined-ingredient Albanian dinner on Staten Island, the morning after, the discussion of six days not making a week, even the long walk up to heaven.

What a gift the Lean Ensemble brings us as we take in this season’s last production and look forward to next year. We followers of the Lean Ensemble, remember what was ... know what is now ... and look forward to what is next.

If you go

What: “Barefoot in the Park” produced by the Lean Ensemble Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. May 2-4; 2:30 p.m. matinee May 5.

Where: Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head Island.

Information: leanensemble.org or call 843-715-6676.

Next season: “The Humans,” by Stephen Karam, directed by Chip Egan; “Every Brilliant Thing,” by Duncan Macillan and Jonny Donahoe, directed by Maegan Azar; “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath, directed by Jay Briggs; “Cry It Out,” by Molly Smith Metzler, directed by Amanda Sox; “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf,” by Tom Ryder and Tim Smoffem, directed by Blake White.

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