No, I don’t mean Arli$$. This upload popped up online a while back, and I think I might have linked to it in another post, but I find it an interesting video for a number of reasons. This is a performance of the play Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon’s first smash hit, which turns 50 this year. It was an old-fashioned three-act romantic light comedy, what they used to call “boulevard comedy,” and even Simon knew that this form didn’t have a lot of time left in it; he wrote few romantic comedies after this one (his 1966 play The Star-Spangled Girl was a rom-com, and a bad one). Like many Broadway comedies, it’s too feathery light to hold up in a big-scale revival, and a Broadway revival flopped a few years ago. It lives on in stock and amateur productions, plus a rather dull movie version.
But this tape of a theatre production, made for HBO in 1981, is valuable because it’s one of the few things I’ve seen that give some sense of how these comedies play when they’re at their best. The cast for the production was a solid B-tier cast – Richard Thomas from The Waltons, Bess Armstrong (who should have been a star but never was), Barbara Barrie, James Cromwell – but they all play the material as if they actually mean every word of it, which is the only way to play this kind of light comedy effectively. And the director, a sitcom director named Harvey Medlinsky, was the stage manager on Mike Nichols’ original Broadway production, so while it’s not Nichols himself directing, it’s someone who knows how Nichols did it. So unlike the movie versions of Simon’s plays, which are always a little slow and watery (the only really terrific movie of a Simon script is The Heartbreak Kid, where Elaine May treated his script with no reverence), it reveals that his scripts contain a lot of laughs beyond the basic punchlines.
As a tape of a 1963 play performed in 1981 – that is, when that particular tradition of theatrical comedy was, if not alive, at least remembered – the production also hints at just how much of American and English sitcom tradition comes from the tradition of the old-fashioned light comedy on a single set. The pacing, the blocking, the line delivery that is pitched somewhere between naturalism and Borscht belt comedy, the scattering of jokes amid exposition; this play contains the seed of so many subsequent television shows for the next generation or two, because so many television writers in those generations dreamed of being Neil Simon. That type of comedy mostly expired in the theatre, killed off by television, and now it’s mostly over on television. But watching this production, I got a better understanding of where that style came from and how it works. Plus the basic importance of playing silly comedy as if nobody involved thinks it’s at all silly.