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Classy Love 

Neil Simon's 1968 comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, is the story of a man who doesn't want to have an affair -- but thinks he should. The role of the protagonist, Barnie Cashman -- stage-center for all three acts -- demands a comic tour de force. In the recent and soon-to-be-revived production at Carlone's, this plum was tossed into the capable hands of the versatile Jerry Lee Leighton -- who made an appearance before the show in a monogrammed robe (a la Jackie Gleason) and welcomed the audience with a bizarre stand-up routine based on vegetable puns.

We first meet Barnie Cashman when he arrives at his mother's apartment bearing a small candy dish for M&Ms, a pint of scotch and two glasses. We know he is up to something illicit, because -- when he phones the seafood restaurant he owns to check up on the help -- he says he's out shopping in Bloomingdale's.

Enter Elaine (a slyly seductive and debonair Jennifer Pagan). Elaine was a customer at the restaurant. Barnie flirted with her, then scribbled the address of his mother's apartment on the back of her bill. For Elaine, this is to be a tryst of casual extramarital sex, the sort of dalliance that she indulges in regularly. For Barney, it is to be his first infidelity ever.

But what a place to choose for an assignation! His mother's apartment. And it gets worse: His mother is away for a few hours only, doing social work at a hospital. Not only that, but she is a neat freak who can tell if the throw pillows are fluffed exactly as they were when she left them. Barnie is afraid to use his mother's glasses. Imagine having a tussle on her bed. And then, what about the neighbors? In short, the very setting guarantees that the affair will not be consummated.

So what kind of a schnook is this Barnie, anyway? In that question lies the difficulty of the play. What saves it, in this enjoyable revival, is the dynamism of Leighton. To draw a nuance from the vocabulary of the New York Jewish world that Barnie inhabits, he may be a schnook, but a noodnick, he's not. As an actor, Leighton has fire in the belly (no matter how convincingly he damps it down). But rather than ill-suit him for Barnie, this suppressed panache makes Barnie likable enough for us to stay onboard through his three failed attempts at forbidden love.

In any case, before Elaine finally bails out on the botched hanky-panky, Barney launches into a harangue of self-justification. He has always done precisely what was expected of him. He feels he has missed out on life. For the next two acts, Barnie keeps trying to score. First, with a wonderfully ditsy young thing who is aspiring to become an actress (Stacy Taliancich) and finally, with the woebegone, depressed wife of one of his best friends (Anne Casey).

Like Barney, himself, Last of the Red Hot Lovers does pretty much what's expected of it. But in Dane Rhodes' production, it's classic dinner-theater fare done in a classy manner.

Another classy show is also soon to be revived. Romeo and Juliet, we are assured by producer/director Mikko, is 95-percent certain to transfer from the private courtyard where it has been running Monday nights (on an invitation-only basis) to the garden of the toney French Quarter Hotel.

I caught the opening night in the private courtyard. It was an unusual entertainment with a great deal of charm -- and I certainly came away with a new feeling for the play. Part of this had to do with 14-year-old Tatianna Haskell, who endowed the 14-year-old Juliet with an authentic adolescent intensity -- at times, putting an unself-conscious modern spin to the text through intonation and attitude. Ben Maddocks was a handsome, believable young Romeo, while an appealing gang of versatile and seasoned players created a satisfying, if somewhat truncated, Verona (Raphaelle O'Neil, Scott Jefferson, Diana Shortes and Martin Covert). Greg Di Leo provided comic relief as an Hispanic nurse who looked like she packed quite a wallop.

The Latin flavor was in keeping, not only with the French Quarter architecture, but also the Mexican Revolutionary setting in which these particular star-crossed lovers suffered their fate.

We, in the audience, were like the proverbial flies on the wall -- sitting, in fact, on the low parapet of flower beds and the circular fountain as the action played itself out at arm's length in the glow of carriage lamps and amid the heady fragrance of night blooming jasmine. Seeing the lovely Juliet laid out on a bier of ancient weathered bricks beneath swaying branches was truly to gaze upon "such stuff as dreams are made on.'

click to enlarge Barnie Cashman (Jerry Lee Leighton, right) seeks a tryst with the depressed wife (Anne Casey) of a friend in Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
  • Barnie Cashman (Jerry Lee Leighton, right) seeks a tryst with the depressed wife (Anne Casey) of a friend in Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
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