Theater at its essence is about transformation. At its best, it conveys the truth of a life in the midst of a change. But even when the stakes are lowered, we still sometimes witness a different sort of transformation, one with the potential to be similarly rewarding. It comes when actors we've followed for years simply disappear into the roles they're playing.
That's why, even though I'm hardly Neil Simon's greatest fan, I'm enthusiastic about the current production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It's the opening show in what I'm tempted to call Ghost and Spice Productions' retro season, which closes with a springtime production of the 1958 classic A Taste of Honey. Under Jordan Smith's experienced direction, Jeffrey Alguire delivers the most transformative performance I've seen from him to date, as Barney Cashman, a sexually frustrated and clueless New York fishmonger on the make.
In Simon's situation comedy, Barney is trying to capitalize on the so-called sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Unfortunately, this comb-over Casanova is trying to do so in his mother's two-room apartment while she's out for a couple of hours. His idea of pillow talk? Trolling for marital discontents between history's stingiest servings of J&B Scotch.
In three acts, he encounters three women. The brassy Elaine (Amy Bossi-Nasiatka) is a take-charge type who would make much of little time if Barney weren't so conflicted. Amanda Watson's quick-change Bobbi is the stereotypical sweet young actor/singer—and airhead/paranoiac—who can't imagine why she keeps winding up in sexually compromising situations, while Meredith Sause's Jeanette is another transformation tale, a friend of the family whose depressive nihilism might even have persuaded Nietzsche to lighten up a bit.
It's obvious that Simon's critical target here is what one character calls "the guiltless society," in which one seemingly can do anything one wants, with whomever, "as long as you're honest about it." Though modern eyes aren't likely to buy Jeanette's ostensible rescue in the third act, Simon's basic argument remains open for debate.
Still, Watson and Alguire's brilliant second-act close and the strong work we see in the first and third acts make this trip down memory lane rewarding. Recommended.