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Theater Review: The bright stars of "Barefoot in the Park"

More rom than com

From left, Alex Harris, Joanna Gibson, Jennie Jenks and Phil Folan in Olympia Little Theatre's "Barefoot in the Park." Photo credit: Austin C. Lang

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In my Stardust review, I cited a line from Ratatouille: "The new needs friends." That line, delivered by "Anton Ego," means the best thing a critic can do is focus attention on quality work that doesn't come with a built-in audience. Often, as in The Head! That Wouldn't Die!, it's enjoyable writing or a small but ambitious company. Other times, as with Clybourne Park, it's an intriguing script fresh out of the gate.

There's nothing new about Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. It was first staged in 1963, and that's exactly when it has to be set. The dated references (and, it must be said, marital advice) wouldn't make sense any other way. This show had the longest debut run of any of Simon's shows, enjoying over 500 performances more than its Tony-winning successor, The Odd Couple. You may have seen the 1967 film version with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, or caught the 2006 Broadway revival with Amanda Peet. Mr. Simon and his sturdy comedies need no help from me with regard to selling tickets.

What does merit attention is that Olympia Little Theatre's current production, overseen by the company's new artistic director, Kendra Malm, boasts solid lead performances from two new arrivals in the South Sound. Alex Harris plays Paul Bratter, married six days and already in over his head. Harris is young, good-looking and sympathetic. He's a fine actor, so I'll honor him with the upper-level critique of a minuscule quibble: he leaves the occasional laugh on the table. His lines are all compellingly delivered, but a few lack the subtle twist of inflection that might extract the last drop of comedic potential. Not so the actor playing his bride Corie, Joanna Gibson, who's cast perfectly and never misses a beat. She too is young and attractive, fulfilling Simon's obvious goal to have us fall for her even as she exhibits the bratty behavior of a 6-year-old. Then there's Phil Folan, who plays a randy upstairs neighbor. Amanda Stevens praised his OLT debut in Red Herring, and he's very good here (though if he's 58 years old, I'm an Albanian salted eel). Jennie Jenks is impeccable as Corie's put-upon mother, Ethel. Anthony Neff drops well-timed punch lines as an uncomfortable telephone repairman. The acting is so good throughout that I was willing to overlook the script's unabashed ignorance of Albanian culture, language, and cuisine.

Barefoot isn't as jokey as The Odd Couple or some of Simon's other familiar works. As a rom-com, it leans heavily toward the rom. That's played beautifully here, and it bolsters OLT's decision to stage this domestic crisis as a Christmas show. Every young couple remembers its first Christmas, its first epic fight, and its first time helping each other off a ledge.

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, 7:55 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1:55 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 21, Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, $10-$14, 800.838.3006

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