Red Hot Encore 

Dinner theater production serves up delicious laugh riot

So you're a middle-aged guy thinking about wrecking a good marriage for a quick affair. Forget about it. Just go see Encore Dinner Theatre's performance of Neil Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Castaways in Manitou and you'll be cured of whatever itch you may be yearning to scratch. While you're at it, you'll get a few good laughs in on the side.

In Simon's play, the man with the proverbial poison ivy is Barney Cashman (T. David Rutherford), the owner of a seafood restaurant who starts feeling the old seven-year-itch after 23 years of marriage to his good, decent and kind wife Thelma.

Like a dose of theatrical Lanacaine, Simon's Red Hot Lovers prescribes Barney a series of three, hilarious encounters with three very different women -- all of whom give the hapless, errant hubby more trouble than the hoped-for fun would ever be worth.

Solid comic acting from each of the four cast members makes this production of Red Hot Lovers a hilarious, three-course treat. A lively opening-night audience, which hooted it up with gusto as Barney got deeper into his self delusion, added to the hilarity and to the chemistry on stage. (The included buffet's Nemo-esque proportions, along with Castaways' faux mariner-motel Americana dcor, didn't hurt the mood one bit.)

As with many of Simon's comedies, the characters are stereotypes and the dialogue is often a series of one-liners that are far too sharp and witty to sound real. But in this case, each of the four experienced actors dove headlong into their characters, pushing their exaggerated qualities to the hilt while providing a sense of believability with well-chosen, subtle physical postures and facial expressions.

Case in point is woman number one: Elain Navazio (Ellen Ottley) is a fiesty, attractive blond ready to whip up the hot sauce in spite of Barney's bumbling attempts to go slow and have what he calls a meaningful affair. This conflict results in a barrage of acerbic retorts from the hard-boiled Elain, followed by a mindless attempt from Barney to cram a relationship into a one-hour, afternoon rendezvous. More than just relying on Simon's sharp script, Ottley got a lot of her laughs with well-timed eye moves, a twitch of a lip or a burst of bawdy swagger.

Woman number two kept up the pace. As the psychotically self-absorbed actress and singer Bobbi Michele, Elizabeth Kahn delivers an equally professional and food-spittingly funny performance.

Of the three actresses brought on stage, Kahn seemed to be the audience favorite, getting the most guffaws. But I personally loved Sallie Walker's performance as Jeanette Fisher, the best friend of Barney's wife, Thelma. Jeanette is Barney's last hope for an illicit, extramarital fling but his wife's best friend ain't going down easy. Walker's pinched, shrew-like expressions fit her character's deep melancholia and bitter disappointment in life perfectly, bringing the sad hilarity of Barney's intentions into perfectly silly perspective.

Rutherford was not as subtle in his role as Barney. But he was very believable as the good, nice guy who just wants to live a little before he dies.

Much of the credit for this fast-paced, no lost-time or laughs performance has to go to director Eve Tilley, an experienced, local theater vet. And while the star of Simon's comedies is often the playwright himself, this crew more shares the credit for a very enjoyable night of stage play.

The $35 per person dinner and theater ticket ain't a cheap date necessarily. But considering you get an infinite supply of decent grub (Chicken Cordon Bleu, Trout Almondine, Cheese Ravioli and seafood salad filled my plate), I'd recommend Red Hot Lovers at Castaways as a good place to bring a date -- heck, even an illicit lover, if you don't mind laughing at yourself, or even cringing a bit, while you swallow.

-- Malcolm Howard


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