Unless you read your program closely, you wouldn’t have realized that the cast of last weekend’s ETB showing of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” were all first-years. The quartet of young actors showed subtlety and poise in a memorable and haunting production of the Neil Simon play.
Sam Vinitsky ‘16, already making his third theatrical appearance at Carleton, starred in a monster role that put him on stage for the duration of the hour and forty minute production. Vinitsky’s character Barney is a bourgeois fish-store owner who, fearful that the sum total of his existence is merely “nice,” decides what he needs is to have affair with one of the promiscuous women the sexual revolution has liberated.
Liza Davis ‘16 played Elaine with an artful, Mrs. Robinson-like balance of sass and boredom. Barney’s first would-be tryst is with her, a frequenter of his restaurant; however it stalls when he insists the expected sex be laced with metaphysical significance. After an emotional monologue that culminates in Barney’s declaration that he doesn’t just want to exist but to live, Elaine responds poignantly “and that’s why you want to get laid…?”
Next, Barney dons a veneer of generosity to try to make it with the unsuspecting actress Bobbi, played by Caroline Roberts ‘16. As was the case when Roberts showed up in True West, it quickly dawns on us that her character is mad as a hatter. This role afforded Roberts even more room to show her dynamism: Bobbi is a sweet mix of tough talk and naïve intolerance, a diva with a history of sketchy relationships and a delusional view of her own career trajectory.
Barney fades into the background in this act, going from creeping to doing anything he can be rid of the crazy lass – but he finally relents after she pressures him into smoking some pot. Act II closes with the pair laying crossing each other on the couch singing a high rendition of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” in what was probably the most tender moment of the night.
The mood abruptly shifts at the beginning of the final act; Barney’s new catch Jeanette happens to be the married best friend of Barney’s spouse and begins the encounter by breaking suddenly into tears on the couch.
Grace Black ‘16 portrayed Jeneatte with the coldness and morbidity appropriate for a character that claims to be happy for only 8.2 percent of her life and can’t think of three decent people in the world. The conversations escalates into a frantic chase before Jeneatte leaves Barney to clean up the apartment and what’s left of his marriage.
Freddie Stein ‘14 was the director whose gamble on such a young cast for such a mature play paid off wonderfully. Each of the ladies was in perfect synch with Vinitsky, whose timing and extensive register of facial expressions had the crowd laughing all night. Stein and Assistant Director Leah Crane ‘15 no doubt deserve praise for fostering this chemistry. Moments like Vinitsky’s cringey attempts at couch intimacy and the climactic chase around the apartment also attested to particularly good sense put in to the coordination of the blocking.
Stein didn’t fiddle much with playwright Simon’s original aside from knocking down the characters’ ages 10 years to better suit the college actors. The only weakness in the script was that it repeated and recapped a bit too much of what had already been said, and perhaps the dialogue lacked a bit of punch in the otherwise explosive climax. But the Last of the Red Hot Lovers was a thoroughly rich and thought-provoking piece.
The title is a satirical lament to mark the period in the late ‘60s when counter-culture fades to mere culture – now these new mores must be judged not by what they stand in opposition to but on their own merits. And in a world that so desperately needs love, we come to see how unlikely it is that one brief illicit encounter can alleviate the characters’ feelings of emptiness.
For Barney, nothing in Elaine’s cigarettes and apathy, Bobbi’s marijuana and ludicrous dreams of celebrity, or Jeanette’s antidepressants and moralism seem to be where it’s at, but his concluding phone-call invitation to his high-school sweetheart-turned-wife ends likewise in frustration. Unlike Elaine, Barney can never give himself over to a totally animalistic sex drive, but it’s not really clear he finds any significance to rescue him from the realm of mere “nice.” That he lives in the shadow of his parents -- working in the restaurant his father started and conducting his rendezvous in his mother’s apartment – further heightens the feeling of his impotency.
Simon constantly has us oscillating between loving his characters and loathing their self-centeredness in this play which presents no clear solutions to relationship struggles (something he no doubt learned over the course of his five marriages). We can, at least, be unambiguously impressed with the way Vinitzsky, Davis, Roberts and Black played out this complexity in such a seasoned manner.
“There’s talent, it’s just a question of time,” Bobbi predicts several times over the course of the night. Carleton theater-goers are spoiled; not only that is this batch of actors already highly talented, but we still have three more years to enjoy them lighting up the Little Norse stage.