FAIRBANKS — You would think tackling one of Neil Simon’s best-known plays would prompt apprehension, or at least, a little nervousness.
But when director Bill Wright had the opportunity to bring “Barefoot in the Park” to life on stage at the Fairbanks Drama Association, he jumped at the chance.
“Each run is different,” Wright said. “Having that dynamic doesn’t intimidate me. It excites me.”
Wright is bringing the play to life, starting tonight, for a three-weekend run at the playhouse on Second Avenue. “Barefoot” is one of Simon’s most-beloved comedies and was turned into a feature film of the same name in 1967. It’s also Simon’s longest-running Broadway play, with 1,530 performances from October 1963 to June 1967.
It’s also not the first time the that FDA has staged the play. The drama association performed it in 1989, and this year, as part of the theater’s 50th anniversary, FDA is bringing “Barefoot in the Park” back to the stage at the request of theater-goers. And way back in 1989, it was Wright who played the male lead of Paul Bratter.
“And I’m still not intimidated by that leap from lead to director,” he said. “Everyone works hard here to put on a great show. The people on stage, that’s what they live for — the audience.”
The romantic comedy follows newlyweds Corrie and Paul Bratter, who, for their first home, live in an apartment on the top floor of a six-story brownstone in New York City. During the course of four days, the couple learn to live as a “couple” while facing the usual daily ups-and-downs of intrusive neighbors and invasive in-laws. Corie wants the uptight attorney Paul to become more easy-going, to, for example, run “barefoot in the park.”
Because the play was written in the 1960s, Wright wanted to keep the setting as close as possible to the way it was written in the script. The apartment the Bratters’ inhabit, at least on stage at the theater, looks vintage 1962 — ’60s art deco tile, muted colors, early ’60s’ furniture.
And because it’s early Neil Simon, expect that rapid-fire dialogue that is trademark Simon. It’s also proved a source of jitters for Natalie Neubauer, who plays Corie Bratter. In typical Simon banter, much of the dialogue overlaps between Neubauer and Valinda Taylor, who play’s her mother, Mrs. Banks.
“It has lots of dialogue,” Neubauer said. “I wanted to do the show but didn’t know if I could do the show. I still get the jitters. My coach says if you have the jitters, it must mean something to you.”
Neubauer has an extensive theater background, studying with instructors during the winter in California. “When I leave in the winter, I feel like I learn so much of what to do on stage,” she said. “Fairbanks is a good vehicle for that.”
Lander Ver Hoef, who plays Paul Bratter, the uptight attorney whom Corie wants to mellow out, found the role to be challenging as well, but for different reasons than Neubauer’s. Where Paul is uptight, combative and argumentative, Ver Hoef describes himself as much more low key.
“That was a stretch for me,” Ver Hoef said, “because that’s not who I am in life. I’m not the combative type.”
The performance is Ver Hoef’s first with the Fairbanks Drama Association, but he has been performing locally since he made his debut at age 13 in “The Little Prince” at Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre. He’s now a senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the math program.
For relative theater newcomer Taylor, who has the role of Corie’s mom, it was a different set of skills that she put to use to ease her transition to the stage. Taylor has a background heavy in dance, and she used that to transition into her role.
“The dance background brought the performance experience,” Taylor said. “Dance is an incredible vehicle for expression — body movement versus just voice. In theater, you have to be committed in mind and body, and dance helps get you in that comfortable mode.”
Other cast members include Sam McKeirnan as Victor Velasco, Ian Norsby as the delivery man and Fairbanks newcomer Bryan Williams as the telephone man.
Williams, who relocated to Fairbanks four months ago, landed the bit part of the telephone man but hopes to be get more involved in the local scene and wants to use “Barefoot” to get his name in the local theater community.
“This is a great facility and a great experience,” he said. “I’m surprised by how much good theater is in Fairbanks.”
If you go
what: “Barefoot in the Park,” written by Neil Simon, directed by Bill Wright
when: 8:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays,
2 p.m. Sundays, from today through Sept. 30 at Riverfront Theatre, 1852 Second Ave. 456-PLAY.
Tickets: Available by reservation or at the box office before the play opens, but reservations are recommended. Tickets are $22 for adults; $14 for teens ages 13 to 18; and $18 for seniors 65 years and older, military (with ID) and $18 for students (with ID)
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at @FDNMfeatures.