"It can be argued that Neil Simon is not only America's most successful
playwright, but also the most successful playwright in the history of theatre."1
Despite being criticized for lack of substance, his hugely successful comedies
are consistently revived, whether on Broadway or in other community or
dinner theatres. Last week the University of Notre Dame's Mainstage season
opened with the departmental premiere of Barefoot in the Park. Though
the play originally opened more then thirty years ago, the themes of
compatibility and compromise that it presents are still relevant today. Simon
masterfully manipulated the plot of Barefoot in the Park to include all of the
elements of a fine play (intrigue, credibility, surprise, etc.) and to create a
viable playscript that both emphasizes the play's major themes and, just as
importantly, makes the audience laugh.
Simon has skillfully constructed the plot of Barefoot in the Park to
showcase and emphasize his themes of compatibility and need for
compromise. The plot itself starts out fairly simple. In the first act, Paul
and Corie Bratter, wed but six days, move into their new apartment on the
top floor of a brownstone in New York City. From the very first, the
audience can see that these are two very different characters that have very
different values, and yet Paul and Corie are very much in love. The plot
progresses as other characters are introduced. First to visit the newlyweds is
Corie's mother, Mrs. Banks. The relationship between Corie and her mother
also involves a clash of very distinct personalities. With the appearance of
the Bratter's eccentric upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco, Corie sees the
opportunity to play matchmaker and inject a little romance into her staid
mother's life. The first act concludes with Corie's plan to bring the two
together at an upcoming dinner party, much to the chagrin of her husband
Paul. This creates intrigue--"that quality of a play which makes us curious
(sometimes fervently so) to see 'what happens next'"2--because the audience is
left wondering whether Corie's plan will work. Thus the first act provides
exposition, creates a feeling of suspense, and begins to showcase the
compatibility problems in the relationships of several of the characters.
The second act takes place in two parts: the first before Corie's dinner
party, and the second in the aftermath. Throughout the first part of the act,
Simon emphasizes the enthusiasm, spontaneity, and lack of forethought with
which Corie approaches her matchmaking task. Paul, on the other hand, acts
like "a stuffed shirt"3 and tries to show Corie the foolishness of her plan.
The evening, he says, "has fiasco written all over it!"4 In addition to the
widening gulf between the newlyweds, this scene also re-emphasizes the
complete opposition of personalities between Mrs. Banks (Ethel) and Victor
Velasco. Velasco cooks extravagant and exotic foods (despite not having any
money) and doesn't even wear a coat in the middle of February. Mrs. Banks,
on the other hand, sleeps on a board. The audience feels that the two of
them are completely incompatible and that the evening is destined to be a
The second part of act 2 begins when Corie and Velasco come tango-
ing through the door of the Bratters' apartment. The audience's interest is
immediately captivated as they wonder what has become of Paul and Mrs.
Banks. The suspense doesn't last long, though, as Paul soon enters carrying
his near-unconscious mother-in-law. As the evening winds to a close, Velasco
offers to escort Mrs. Banks home to New Jersey, with presumably more
licentious motives in mind. Meanwhile Corie and Paul begin the first major
argument of their wedded life. Though Simon handles the fight with a light
touch, the disagreement nevertheless shows the way that some couples can
become blinded by differences and reluctant to compromise. Also, the events
of the second act have led naturally to this point, creating an element of
credibility (also known as the "internal consistency of a play"5. The second
act closes with the rift between the Paul and Corie at its widest; Corie wants a
divorce and Paul is left to sleep out on the couch under the broken skylight.
The third act begins rather quietly, as Corie and Paul avoid each other
and silently carry on their argument from the night before. The tension
suddenly erupts when Corie receives a phone call from a relative explaining
that Mrs. Banks never arrived home the night before. Fearing the worst,
Corie climbs up to Velasco's "apartment" to ascertain her mother's
whereabouts. Paul is surprised to see his wife return in tears minutes later.
With perfect comic timing, the cause of Corie's outburst is revealed when her
mother comes running in dressed in only Velasco's silk bathrobe. The
injection of this element of surprise proves the skill with which Simon has
constructed his plot: "Surprise is an essential ingredient of intrigue: a play that
is truly intriguing is one that leads us to expect surprises and then
appropriately rewards our expectations."6 As Mrs. Banks tries to explain the
awkward situation to her hysterical daughter, Paul finds opportunity to leave
the apartment, clutching a liquor bottle in one hand and a suitcase in the
other. At this point the narrative seems at its darkest; it seems as if every
relationship in the play has self-destructed. The audience still expects a
happy ending, but the plot has made the possibility of it actually happening
seem small indeed.
Enter Victor Velasco. Though Mrs. Banks doesn't receive him warmly
at first, her demeanor rapidly becomes friendlier as he relates the previous
evening's events to her. This is almost a kind of denouement in the Banks-
Velasco plot line. All the hidden events have been revealed, and the two
characters reestablish their relationship. Velasco leaves after inviting Mrs.
Banks to dinner; she accepts. Thus the resolution of her situation with
Velasco teaches Mrs. Banks the worth of compromise and she can now help
her daughter win back the love of Paul. Persuaded by her mother's
impassioned advice, Corie is rushing to go look for her spouse when the
audience is surprised again--Paul has returned. Corie is astonished to find
that Paul is completely drunk, and she becomes even more astonished at the
outrageous way her "stuffed shirt" of a husband is acting. In the hilarious
climax of the play, Paul answers Corie's inquiries about his lack of socks with
the answer, "I've been walking barefoot in the goddam park!"7 The audience
is pleased because Paul and Corie have both demonstrated an ability and
willingness to compromise, and therefore the expectation of a happy ending
has been fulfilled. Corie has recognized the error of her impetuous
meddling and the need for forethought, while Paul has shed some of his
inhibitions and managed to "let loose" for once in his life. Mrs. Banks' advice
to Corie to "give up a little of [herself] for him"8 has become applicable to
both her daughter and her son-in-law. Thus the resolution of the play has
fulfilled the audiences expectations, made them laugh, and reemphasized the
major themes of the play.
Though the compatibility problems of two newlyweds, a crotchety old
woman, and an eccentric pauper do not seem to generate much "substance"
in a play, nevertheless Neil Simon manages to arrange the events that make
up the plot of Barefoot in the Park in such a way as to include all of the
elements of a fine play (intrigue, credibility, surprise, etc.). America's
premiere playwright also creates a viable playscript that emphasizes the
show's major themes of compatibility and compromise. And, perhaps most
importantly, Simon's skill as a playwright is revealed in the wonderful way
Barefoot in the Park makes the audience laugh.
Cohen, Richard. Theatre. 3rd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield
Publishing Company, 1993.
Donnelly, Richard E. The Play Structure. COTH 205, 5 September 1996.
Simon, Neil. Barefoot in the Park. 1963.
Source: Essay UK - http://www.essay.uk.com/coursework/neil-simons-barefoot-in-the-park.php