WILLIAMSTOWN — By the end of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,’’ Brooks Ashmanskas is drenched in sweat. Small wonder.
As Barney Cashman, a manager at a seafood restaurant who is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to commit adultery, Ashmanskas has spent the previous two hours veering — quite literally — from one highly agitated state to another: lust, anxiety, bewilderment, aggrieved indignation, melancholy, and back to lust again.
It’s a case of a performer simply seizing a role and acting the living daylights out of it, and it’s pretty irresistible.
Director Jessica Stone, who helmed Williamstown’s all-male 2010 production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’’ maintains a headlong pace with “Lovers,’’ capturing Simon’s rapid rhythms with a sureness of touch befitting a veteran actress who performed in the most recent Broadway revival of “The Odd Couple.’’
Perhaps her actor’s instinct also guided the decision to let her star go for broke. Good move, in any case. In his expressive range and his knack for in-the-moment comic invention, the rubber-faced Ashmanskas evokes Nathan Lane, while in the wordless ballets that open each of the play’s three acts — with Barney capering through an apartment as he prepares for another grand seduction — the actor brings to mind the great Jackie Gleason, another nimble big man.
Ashmanskas is ably complemented by Leslie Bibb as a bubbly free spirit who is quite possibly deranged; Heidi Schreck as the terminally gloomy wife of one of Barney’s friends, who estimates she has enjoyed only 8.2 percent of her life; and especially Susie Essman, deploying the withering glare familiar to “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ viewers. Here Essman plays Elaine Navazio, a no-nonsense type who grows increasingly exasperated by Barney’s insistence on talking and talking rather than just getting on with it already.
Ah, but the talk is such fun to listen to. First produced in 1969, “Last of the Red Hot Lovers’’ is the product of an era when Simon utterly dominated Broadway, minting hit after hit, but it holds up better than some of his other work of the period. Of course you can see some of the jokes coming from a mile away. Much more often, though, Williamstown’s “Lovers’’ reminds us why countless sitcom writers have gone to school on Simon while never seriously threatening his status as the laureate of a certain kind of quippy middle-age angst.
When, in the third act, Barney takes a brief journey to the dark side, the play is at its least convincing. But overall it feels surprisingly fresh, even though it serves partly as a time capsule, delivering some of the flavor of the counterculture years. This sensation is augmented by Aaron Rhyne’s projections of footage from the 1960s. Costume designer Clint Ramos does a deft job capturing the looks of the decade. On one end of the spectrum is Essman’s Elaine, with leopard-print shoes, purse, and hat that should give Barney a hint as to her ferocity; on the other is Bibb’s Bobbi Michele, attired in a mauve minidress, every inch the mod flower child.
You see, there’s a sexual revolution going on, and square, blue-suited Barney at 47 is desperate to enlist. One measure of that desperation: The apartment in which each of his botched assignations unfolds, from winter 1967 to fall 1968, belongs to . . . his mother. (That apartment is rendered in period-perfect detail by set designer Alexander Dodge, right down to the baby-blue rotary-dial telephone.) In an amusing running gag, which Ashmanskas mines to the hilt, the seafood professional sniffs his fingers for the telltale smell of fish before and even during his would-be seductions.
Why is he so intent on behavior that, to judge by his nervous dithering, is clearly out of character? After all, Barney still loves his wife after 23 years of marriage. He has to concede this much: “Life has not only been very kind to me, it goes out of its way to ignore me.’’ Hmm, perhaps we begin to see the problem. Also, Barney has begun to be preoccupied with his own mortality; he scans the obituaries each day, taking pitiful solace in the fact that his name is not there.
When he finally focuses his amorous attention on Jeanette Fisher (Schreck), who is not just his own age but also from his own social circle, you’d think that Barney would get lucky. Well, you’d think that if you were unfamiliar with the work of Neil Simon. But Jeanette does occasion one of the choicest moments of this delightful “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.’’ She is delivering a lengthy rant against the evils of the decadent age she finds herself in, and she has identified evil No. 1: rampant promiscuity. From the bleak look on Barney’s face, and the broken reply that issues from our not-so-red-hot lover, it’s clear he’d very much like to experience some evidence of that.