Greenwich Village Is Both the Obstacle and the Solution in Neil Simon’s Romantic Romp, Barefoot in the Park
Barefoot in the Park by playwright Neil Simon, which premiered on Broadway on October 23rd, 1963 at the Biltmore Theatre, is a romp through the Village. As in a number of theatrical endeavors, Village real estate plays a leading role in the plot of the play. The age-old trope about New York apartment “eccentricities” gets a huge amount of comedic mileage in Simon’s iconic play, which, by the way, originally starred a young Robert Redford (who reprised the role in the 1967 film).
Corie and Paul Bratter, a newly married couple who have decided to “rough it” in Greenwich Village in order to live a life less ordinary, have settled in a 5th-floor walk-up at 49 West 10th Street (where no such walk-up apartment building exists, but known to be modeled on 111 Waverly Place). As they say, “choose a good location for your play, and the rest will write itself.” And that is exactly what Neil Simon counted on in Barefoot in the Park. The play takes place on the fifth floor of a Greenwich Village apartment building — one without an elevator. In Act One, the walls are bare, the rooms devoid of furniture, and the skylight is broken, allowing it to snow in the middle of the apartment at the most inopportune moments. And those stairs…
Walking up the stairs is a comic gold mine for the characters, offering outrageous, out-of-breath entrances for telephone repairmen, delivery men, and suburban, New Jersey mother-in-laws. Corie (suburban Jersey girl) loves everything about their new, bohemian home in the heart of Greenwich Village, even if one must turn the heat off to warm up the place and flush up in order to make the toilet flush down. Paul, the newlywed husband and an up-and-coming New York City lawyer, however, feels less comfortable in his new surroundings, and with the mounting demands of his career, the apartment becomes a catalyst for stress and anxiety. The setting initially creates the conflict between the two lovebirds, but it is the colorful Village neighbors who truly further the tension between the newlyweds.
The Village offers a number of fantastic, colorful characters who paint a hilarious, lovely and often meaningful portrait of Village residents. More importantly, they provide the couple a sounding board for their fledgling union and teach them the real meaning of real commitment in the process.
In his introduction to the collection “The Comedy of Neil Simon,” the prolific American playwright (who himself lived in Greenwich Village) wrote of an incident in his own young marriage where his wife, Joan, hurled a frozen veal chop at him because words could no longer express the passion of a bitter argument they were having.
“A faint flicker of a smile crossed my face,” he wrote. Standing outside of himself, Simon saw the absurdity of the situation. This moment would serve as the perfect, germinal idea for Barefoot, a comedy about newlyweds who don’t really know each other yet, but come to understand each other and grow to understand the absurdities of relationships with the help and humor of their neighbors. The Village is the perfect backdrop for both loving, supporting community and…absurdity!
The Biltmore Theatre in the Broadway district, original home of Barefoot in the Park in 1963, starring Robert Redford, opened in 1925, and was designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp. The legendary rock musical Hair, produced by East Village impresario Joseph Papp, premiered there in 1968. Following a major renovation, the Biltmore Theatre stands today as the The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at 261 West 47th Street, and currently serves as the Broadway house of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which for more than four decades, has been a preeminent, not-for-profit producer of the highest quality, award-winning theatrical productions. This dynamic institution, from its origins as a small, vibrant off-off-Broadway theater, to its status as a distinguished and vital New York institution, has created and nurtured countless theatre artists and launched a multitude of theatrical endeavors.