by Hugh Hunter

Sam Gugino and Nolan Maher (back row), Bonnie Kapenstein and Marisa Block (front row) are currently starring in Neil Simon’s classic comedy, “Barefoot in the Park,” now through Jan. 26 at Old Academy Players in East Falls, where Grace Kelly got her start.

“Barefoot in the Park” (1963) was Neil Simon’s first Broadway hit, a long-running show that earned several Tony nominations. Old Academy Players takes this old chestnut out for a spin. The plot is paper thin: newlyweds, now past the first blush of their honeymoon, struggle with clashing personalities to make a go of marriage.

When “Barefoot in the Park” opened on Broadway, it starred Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford. It ran for 1,530 performances, closing on June 25, 1967, making it Neil Simon’s longest-running hit and the 10th longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history. Redford reprised his role with Jane Fonda in the 1967 smash hit movie.

Director Jane Jennings gives you an entertaining evening at Old Academy. The plays opens onto a dingy 6th floor East Manhattan flat. The walls are an unsightly yellow. There is no furniture in the room and no bathtub; the closet leaks and there is a hole in the skylight.

This unpromising living space is a metaphor for the beginning of a bare marital relationship that will be a challenge to define. As act two opens, you are struck by how successfully Corie has transformed the flat into a lived-in space, now tastefully furnished. But what Corie does with the apartment she struggles to do with the relationship itself.

Corie and Paul are a clash of opposites, (shades of “The Odd Couple”), and their fight scenes are terrific. Corie is the high-spirited one, always looking for excitement and adventure. Her invitation to just walk barefoot in the park sums her up. Marisa Block is arresting; with her bearing and presence, Block makes you feel Corie’s underlying rebellion and sensuality.

In contrast, Paul is a buttoned-down young lawyer, more interested in cramming for his first case than in going to bed with Corie. Nolan Maher effectively uses lots of pantomime to express Paul’s distracted nature, always staggering in exhaustion from the long six-floor walkup. (Harkening back to his Sid Caesar salad days, Simon milks the stairway shtick with servicemen characters.)

The play comes to a head when Corie feels attracted to Velasco, (Sam Gugino), an aging neighbor with lecherous inclinations. Corie gets a vicarious thrill in hooking up Velasco on a dinner date with her ditsy mother (Bonnie Kapenstein), then recoils in horror over the outcome. (Ed. note: Gugino is a former restaurant reviewer for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Chestnut Hill Local.)

Simon is on familiar ground here. Married five times, he is an expert on marital discord. His feeling for the individual’s alienation is in stark opposition to his vision of the stable, conventional marriage he esteems. He returns to that subject in play after play, both in early comedies and later in “serious” semi-autobiographical works.

In retrospect, “Barefoot” comes across as a caustic coda to all those cozy 1950s sitcoms where loving couples confront pint-sized, food-fight problems. But you are not sure the de rigueur happy ending will truly come to pass with these two. You leave with Paul and Corie clinging to each other on the window ledge, bound together mostly by the knowledge that if they ever let go, it is a long way down.

Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. “Barefoot in the Park” will run through Jan 26. Tickets at 215-843-1109

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