Encore Michigan

‘Red Hot Lovers’ from Mind The Gap is sweet, comic delight

Review June 21, 2022 Encore Staff

SALINE, MI–The Last of The Red Hot Lovers is quintessential Neil Simon. While the title of his 1969 play about a middle-aged man with sexual wanderlust after many years of marriage might well feel anachronistic to anyone under 40, the play, presented by Mind The Gap is actually as current as the latest Netflix hit…only with better dialogue.

Why current? The protagonist, Barney, would surely have gone through the same machinations to satisfy his itch in 2022 via different means. He would have tested his marketability, as so many married men do today, with the ladies via online dating.

Barney Cashman is a restaurant owner in New York City whose Mother has died and left him an apartment that he plots to use as a love nest. Barney, as inhabited by Adrian Diffey, can be described as hard-working, successful, financially comfortable nebbish who is has a bad case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

The play is broken up into three acts with a familiar formula for Simon’s early plays. There are three self-contained, but connected, vignettes in Barney’s Mother’s apartment, each involving a different woman he has lured to the love lair.

The first of Barney’s targets is Elaine (Margaret Gilkes), a customer he clumsily invites to this tryst attempt. She is an oversexed “dame” with an appetite for booze, cigarettes, and other people’s husbands despite having one of her own who she says would turn her and Barney into ground beef if he caught them. Barney is lovably inept, nervous and reluctant with her, and confesses that the only woman he was ever with other than his wife was a 44-year old prostitute in Newark NJ for about 15 minutes when he was a late teenager. Gilkes plays Elaine like the pro she is, and makes great use of body language to convey her sexual impatience with Barney. It also helps that Simon’s compelling writing about the mundane–like one’s desperate want of a cigarette and a more generous pour of a drink, is just plain funny and is the fuel that keeps this story on edge.

Barney’s next target is whacky Bobbi (Jeannine Thompson), a woman he apparently met in the park and gave twenty dollars to. A struggling actress whose talent is really bunko activities, Bobbi is scatter-brained and seems to have a catalog of stories about getting into salty, sexual and dangerous situations with a range of men. But for Barney, she is sexy and silly, clad in white G0-Go boots typical of 1970 when the story is set. She is of a world Barney can only be bewildered by. Thompson dives into the character, and does a wonderful job delivering on Simon’s intent of a woman who has no real intent or interest in Barney unless she sees an opening to tease more cash out of him.

Lastly, Barney entices Jeanette (Fran Potasnik), a close friend of his wife’s, and the wife of one of his friends. No doubt, Barney sees this tryst as the most dangerous, because it is closest to home. Jeanette has come to the “love nest” out of curiosity despite being a bit of a depressed moralist. Simon, again, gives his characters a piece of business to focus on that turns into a very funny thread–the fact that Jeannette won’t put her purse down during Barmey’s attempt to seduce her. Postasnik is quietly funny playing the part almost as a “church lady” who has wandered into the wrong room.

Diffey is chronologically older than Simon wrote Barney, who in the original is in his mid-40s. But with a few tiny tweaks to the script to make that work, he inhabits Barney’s head quite well, and understands Simon’s spot-on depiction of the self-made Jewish business owner in Manhattan. Simon, also Jewish, frequently in his work draws on the second generation Jewish immigrant personas–proud, yet self conscious–he grew up with. In Barney’s case, there is great balance between the confident, business owner and the self-conscious nebbish who keeps smelling his fingers to see if he has successfully concealed the smell of oysters from his daily chore of opening several dozen for the restaurant.

Barney is not a letch despite the storyline. He is human, and ultimately, he is not the suave player, but rather the inept would-be lover trying to make sense of the era of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll in the confines of his mundane Manhattan seafood restaurant. If he was just a player, there would be no play. Simon surely drew on someone he knew well for Barney’s character, and he undoubtedly saw a bit of himself in Barney whose age was close Simon’s own when he wrote it.

Simon’s early skills for dialogue are very much on display in Lovers. He was a great observer, and having spent his earliest years of writing in the writers room working for Sid Caesar along with mega talented comedy writers including Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, he is equally adept at writing physical comedy and subtle talk comedy.

The set, designed by Diffey in the company’s new performance space here, embodies what a dead Mother’s apartment would look and feel like circa 1970–an apartment that would not have seen updates probably since after the war. The fabrics on the chairs and the wall coverings are decidedly mid century. The small back and white TV set looks to be one of the few things added since FDR was in the White House.

In an era of dishonest laugh-track sitcoms, rapid-cut films that don’t try to say much and new plays that use storytelling gimmicks, it is refreshing to just soak in well-written dialogue, and funny self-consciousness that comes from the heart. Highly Recommended. And this weekend, you have three more chances to see it at a new performance space at 109 Michigan Ave. in the heart of downtown Saline. Ticket info can be found here.