By D. A. Blackburn
If “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” sounds like a romantic comedy, think again. The reality is that there’s very little romance in the Tipping Point Theatre’s season opener. But what it lacks in sultry steam, the production makes up for in scorching comedy, and as the lead-off to a season of “All American” works, it leaves this critic feeling theatrically patriotic.
Written by Neil Simon, “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” is the story of Barney Cashman – a successful, if tragically square restaurateur, seeking excitement through a series of three (failed) extramarital affairs. Cashman’s life feels stale. He’s been married to his high school love for 23 years, runs the family business and longs to experience life outside the day-to-day routine. Having decided to stray, he sets out to seduce, using his mother’s apartment as a love nest. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to find a suitable lover. With each attempt, his self confidence – and his swagger – grow. But failing to seal the deal, he discovers a surprising truth: He’s been happy all along, and he’s simply too decent to cheat.
A frequently reoccurring theme in Simon’s play is the deterioration of morality, brought on by the sexual revolution – no surprise, given that the work premiered in 1969. The Tipping Point’s production, however, is set firmly in the disco-driven 1970s. Ultimately, this makes little difference thematically, and proves to be a good decision with regard to costuming (Colleen Ryan-Peters), music and direction (James R. Kuhl).
Another, far more significant variation in the Tipping Point’s production is the use of only two performers. The work was written for four – one male lead, and three supporting women. In this production, all three female roles are handled by Sandra Birch. From an audience perspective, the change neither enhances nor diminishes the production, as Birch delivers three distinct characters with exceptional poise. Her performance is of a consistent, and very high, caliber throughout the show.
On the flip side of the gender coin, Dave Davies delivers a superb comedic performance. He navigates the evolution of Barney Cashman from naÃ¯ve, awkward and uptight potential philanderer to suave (or some approximation of it), confident potential playboy, and on to loving husband with a smooth and even tone. His expressive acting is a delight, and helps to keep the laughs coming when dialogue isn’t in play.
Both performers excel in Kuhl’s physically demanding comedic vision. It’s amazing how much humor can be generated from a simple plastic sofa cover, and to be sure, Kuhl and his performers use it to maximum effect
Kuhl’s direction makes good use of the entire stage, as well as a the work’s fine sets and properties.
Charlie Gaidica’s sets are a nice complement to the script, and true to the company’s form, they are executed exceptionally well. Beth Duey’s properties compliment the set well.
Ryan-Peters’ costumes are a good fit to the work, and in the case of Cashman’s final ensemble, earn their own laughs.
Birch and Davies may be “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” but Tipping Point is on sure footing with the first production of the season.
‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E Cady St, Northville. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 16. $28-$30. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com