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9.10.2010

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How does a decades-married man throw off the mantle of fidelity and cut loose for a one-off steamy love affair? If Last of the Red Hod Lovers is any indication, the answer is: ineptly, awkwardly, uproariously. Tipping Point Theatre and director James Kuhl tackle Neil Simon's comic tale of one man's quest to get extramarital, backing up Benny Hill levels of silliness with fine character work and subtlety.

At first sight, Barney Cashman (Dave Davies) seems like an unlikely Lothario. Spend a few minutes with him and the conviction just gets stronger — he's a painstakingly responsible owner of a fish restaurant, a husband and father, who's always followed the rules. Now approaching age fifty, he wants to do something ribald before it's too late, and so he invites an acquaintance (Sandra Birch) to his mother's empty apartment, with soaring expectations of one afternoon of perfect emotional and sexual connection. When he unsurprisingly fails to woo the chain-smoking, no-nonsense, storming-out firebrand, Barney goes back for more, changing tactics but not expectations (and certainly not venue), with two different women. 

Birch, who plays all three of the female characters, is expertly cast to run roughshod over Barney for two hours in myriad ways. Raising the stakes from mere combativeness to nattering vacuousness to abjectly hopeless neurosis, her characters are believable and impressively different. Hapless though his role may be, Davies is a willing and able partner, elevating what could have been a mere straight-man type with exceptional physical and vocal flourishes; paradoxically, the smoother he gets with practice, the more ridiculous his attempts appear. The pair has a practiced sense of give and take, which is essential for this fast-moving, zig-zagging script — because Barney insists on love instead of just a fling, the characters spend most of their time talking in circles, light years away from sexy. The conversation turns personal in the superior last scene, and Kuhl's near telegraphing of the final reveal is a solid choice that makes a punchline out of Barney's lapse in awareness as he moves incrementally toward realization.

Production elements revel in the circa-1970 sensibility of Simon's script; it's a necessary choice to make sense of not only a number of references, but also Barney and his would-be paramours' attitudes about marriage and fidelity. Set designer Charlie Gaidica presents a vivid time capsule where old lady d├ęcor intersects with throwback ugly wallpaper, the centerpiece of which is a regulation plastic-covered sofa populated with creepy stuffed kitsch. (Mom would scream if she saw what happened to them both.) Costumes by Colleen Ryan-Peters and sound by Julia Garlotte are also spot on, making outlandishly funny choices without feeling parodic.

This Last of the Red Hot Lovers benefits from its two-person cast, shifting the focus from three out-there supporting characters to the interactions between Barney and his conquest du jour. How Davies' choices and reactions are shaped by his scene partner is magnified by aligning him each time opposite Birch, and her transformation from one character to the next is nicely paralleled by his evolution from naive thrill-seeker to thoroughly inept Don Juan. In a production rich with big laughs, the evident craftsmanship of its performances is both a contributing factor to the humor and worthy of appreciation in its own right.

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