Though I’d never attended a live performance of Barefoot in the Park before this week, in a way, Neil Simon’s 1963 comedy provided my first-ever theatrical experience. I viewed it as a small child, sitting on the carpeted living room floor of my family home.
The televised production had been filmed on stage, and aired on HBO. Being a kid, it took most of the first act for me to understand how the format differed from movies and television shows. It had the length of a feature film, but the feel of a sitcom. There were shockingly few special effects, and when the characters spoke, it sounded as though they were in a room, their voices couched in reverb, rather than isolated within the compressed audio of post-production.
Obviously, my child brain didn’t think in terms of production values. At the time, many of the jokes went over my head, and I couldn’t fully grasp the romantic tension underlying the plot. To be honest, I only started watching in the first place because I mistook the lead actor for Mark Hamill, and I spent the entire play hoping this story about newlyweds starting out their lives together in a cramped apartment would connect in some way to the saga of Luke Skywalker.
Even so, I was an impressionable viewer, and the play has resonated with me all these years, despite my confusion. It informed my understanding of relationships, and established a baseline for my appreciation of staged reality.
Although he’s responsible for many of American theater’s best loved comedies, and is one of only 20 funny people to have been awarded the Mark Twain Prize, I would argue Marvin Neil Simon’s gift has never been his humor. Not really.
His true mastery has been in the depiction of human relationships, and the complicated ways we may regard one another with simultaneous affection and contempt, with sentimentality and occasional fatigue. It’s just that his doing so makes us laugh. In films, love is portrayed with steamy glances and dramatic kisses. In a play (and, I suspect, reality), love can’t exist without goofy jokes.
At least, that’s the subliminal lesson I absorbed as a six year old whose first filmgoing experience was Star Wars. Whereas the feature film format lends itself to escapism and fantasy, the humor voiced in staged comedies offers truer and deeper reverberations of ourselves. As the new generation of Star Wars films showed us, there are only so many ways to examine relationships with a light saber.
Fifty years after its first production at the Old Globe, Barefoot in the Park has returned, and will play there til September 2.