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One Man – Three Women – and a Mother’s apartment!

 Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers opened on 28 December 1969, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York. It ran for over two years and subsequently was performed throughout the world, including Australia. It has remained one of Neil Simon’s most regularly performed comedies of urban New York life.

This satiric comedy-of-(American-Jewish) manners was initially a response to the ‘sexual liberation’ of the late-1960s, exemplified by the ground-breaking musical Hair, which had opened on Broadway only the year before. Last of the Red Hot Lovers joined other notable productions in 1969, the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, that questioned and challenged numerous contemporary conservative values and institutions. This included Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free, and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Marriage), Robert Marasco’s Child’s Play (Roman Catholic education), and Arthur Kopit’s Indians (History and Native-Americans). This rebelliousness was complemented in some of the most outstanding and influential American films of the year, which included John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. 

All these works are celebrating their respective 50th Anniversary in 2019. It is somewhat sobering to think and reflect that many of the issues raised in these works in 1969 are still concerns in 2019. Dated? I think not.

Within Neil Simon’s considerable canon of work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is the second in a quartet of plays that charts a particular evolution of Neil Simon dramatic concerns, skills, and artistry.  From the farcical Plaza Suite (1968) and the satiric romance of  Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969) to the serious dramas of The Gingerbread Lady (1970), and The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue (1971). Collectively, these plays form a quartet with similar themes, characters, situations, and dramatic techniques, including setting the entire action in the same room but with three different stories (Plaza Suite and Last of the Red Hot Lovers). There is a growing sense of middle-age and middle-class fear, isolation and complete ‘bafflement of the individual’. This ‘bafflement’ with the modern world is also reflected in the film The Out of Towners (1970), one of Neil Simon’s best film works.

What gives these plays (and screenplay) an added depth is the poignancy of the humour. Clive Barnes, the influential New York Times theatre critic, noted the shift in Neil Simon’s humour in his review of the original production – “He is as witty as ever…but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill… There is the dimension of humanity to its humour so that you can love it as well as laugh at it.” (NYT. 29 December 1969).

Whilst Last of the Red Hot Lovers deals with a middle-age crisis of confidence the play also deals with more universal issues such as ‘broken dreams’. From today’s perspective, the play could be regarded as relatively conservative. It challenges the now accepted convention of ‘do your own thing’ on a moral and ethical basis. As the characters express, it makes one also question whether or not one is ‘decent’.

Are you? Are you ‘decent’? Who else in your life would you call ‘decent’? Or do you think that mankind is basically selfish and ‘indecent’? What can you do if essentially you are a ‘romantic’ and believe in the best of people rather than the worse? How do you cope with modern ethics that proclaims ‘do your own thing’ and be ‘honest’ to yourself when invariably that involves hurting other people?

This is what makes Last of the Red Hot Lovers still so relevant and pertinent as these issues are still part of living in so-called ‘modern times’ and can be baffling. What makes the play special and very much exemplifies the best of Neil Simon is that he doesn’t judge his characters. These are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but individuals with whom we can empathize as they struggle with a world that seems to demand behaviour that doesn’t sit comfortably with them, particularly in regards to sex.

Like most of Neil Simon’s work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers the characters are wonderful for actors to play. The original (and subsequent productions) invariably have been performed by one male actor and three female actors. The original cast was James Coco (Barney), Linda Lavin (Elaine), Marcia Rodd (Bobbi), and Doris Roberts (Jeanette). The great American caricature artist, Al Hershfield, did one of his famous theatrical portraits of the original cast. Other actors who have performed in this play include Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, Alan Arkin (Barney), Rita Moreno, Sally Kellerman (Elaine), Paula Prentis (Bobbi) and Renee Talor (Jeanette). The Australian cast included Harry H. Corbett (Barney), Lelia Blake (Elaine), Anne Lucas (Bobbi), and Betty Lucas (Jeanette), and was directed by Alfred Sandor.

The idea, however, of having all three female characters performed by the same actress was initially inspired by a highly successful 2005/06 Chinese production featuring husband and wife team Xu Zheng (Barney) and Tao Hong (Elaine, Bobbi, Jeanette).

This production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers by STARC PRODUCTIONS complements and continues our ever-evolving ‘aesthetic’ of 2-hander plays in which the acting has precedence over design and concept: ‘STARC by name – ‘Stark’ by Nature’. Each of these four productions – Gardner McKay’s Toyer, Jim Cartwright’s  Two, Suzie Miller’s Reasonable Doubt, and now Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers – whilst maintaining our essential dramatic ‘aesthetic’, nonetheless, are widely different in ‘style’.

What is ‘Style’? Michel St. Denis defined ‘style’ as the ‘dramatic reality’ or ‘dramatic truth’ of each individual play – even though written by the same playwright. The world of Last of the Red Hot Lovers may have certain similarities with other plays by Neil Simon, but it is remarkable different – even the three Acts are different, even though set in the same place.

These are the artistic challenges for STARC PRODUCTIONS, challenging our talent and skills against different ‘styles’ within one ‘aesthetic’. Furthermore, it complements and continues STARC PRODUCTIONS artistic mission – Quality Entertainment at Affordable Prices.

We are determined to establish another full-time professional theatre company in Adelaide. It’s Time! The talent and skills are here – but not always the opportunity. It’s Time!

Tony Knight