Life hands you lemons? Make lemonade, the old saying goes. Acclaimed playwright Neil Simon did just that, blending his happy experiences with his bittersweet memories of a troubled childhood and the death of his beloved wife Joan at age 39 followed by several failed marriages.
But oh, the resulting concoction of comedy spiced with dramatic moments was sweet with success: 17 Tony nominations and three awards; Broadway hits and Hollywood movies.
Early in his career, Neil Simon had came to the conclusion that he should write about what he knows. That meant mining his life for the raw materials he would turn into Broadway gold. Throughout his long career, the playwright, who died last August at age 91, gave audiences plays of urban neurosis and commentary on the human condition.
Lean Ensemble Theater pays homage to this Broadway legend in its season closer, Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” The comedy centers on the trials and tribulations of Corie and Paul Bratter and the couple’s first few days as newlyweds as they plunge into an intricate dance of personalities and eccentricities.
He’s a buttoned up lawyer who frets and she’s a can-do spirit who gushes about possibilities for the cramped, dysfunctional New York City apartment they’re sharing. It’s all complicated by Cory’s zany plot to fix up her loopy but prudish mother with the kimono-wearing artiste who lives in the building’s attic.
Simon wrote the play after a dry spell. When he finally got around to tackling the ever intimidating blank page, Simon cast about for inspiration. As he recounts in his autobiography “Rewrites,” he had asked himself “Who did I know that I found interesting, unusual, intelligent … someone I thought the audience would care about?”
The answer? His wife Joan. The premise? Their first apartment and the adjustment the new bride and groom must make as they shake the stardust from their eyes.
The flat in “Barefoot” would mirror the Greenwich Village fifth-floor walk-up on 10th Street that the Simons moved into before the ink had dried on their marriage certificate. Joan, the resourceful one, carved out a bedroom from a dressing room that was so small the bed touched all four walls. “The kitchen,” Simon reports, “had a sinkette and an antique two-burner stove that was powerful enough to warm water but not actually boil it.”
“Barefoot” starring Elizabeth Ashley and a young Robert Redford opened on Broadway in October 1963. Mike Nichols, in his first turn as director, would win a Tony Award. And it was Nichols, the playwright admitted, who “turned the play from artifice to believability.”
In skit comedy like the shows Simon had been writing years before for comedy legends like Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, it was all about gags and snappy lines. But plays, he would now come to realize, call for nuances of character and deeper emotions along with the humor. Simon tells of a transforming “Barefoot” rehearsal when the clever banter was getting lots of laughs but Nichols, clearly unhappy, stopped the actors mid-scene. “Who told you this was a comedy?” he demanded. “We’re doing ‘King Lear!’” That, Simon declared, was the key to creating a great comedy. “Doing it with the intensity of ‘Lear’ is exactly what made it so funny.”
The resulting rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences propelled a four-year run followed by a hit movie, this time pairing Redford with Jane Fonda.
Lean Ensemble Theater’s new production of Simon’s classic comedy will bring this little bit of Manhattan and all the amusing complexities of young married love to the island this month. Directed by Blake White, “Barefoot” features Thomas Azar, Sheila Kadra, and Jennifer Webb along with Ensemble Members, Jim Stark and Mimi Wyche.
And who knows? It may inspire you to run barefoot in the park — or better yet, on the beach.
If You Go
What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Barefoot in the Park.”
When: April 25-27 and May 2-4 at 7:30 p.m.; April 28 and May 5 matinees at 2 p.m.
Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head
Tickets: $25 preview night (April 25); $40 all other performances; $15 students/active military.