The prolific playwright Neil Simon has managed to turn out plays about as quickly as it takes most people to take a breath, and the American theater landscape is well-marked -- some would say littered -- by that output.
The content, whether it's the tale of mismatched roommates in "The Odd Couple" or a harried executive and his wife in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," is typically the same: many laughs and wisecracks, and an occasional tear.
Critics often have skewered Simon for this sitcom mentality, calling him shallow. But Simon has been an enormously popular success, with a string of smash hits on Broadway and a enviable plethora of fans.
With his quick wit and warm characterizations, Simon delivers an always enjoyable evening of light theater.
Simon's gift gets good exposure in "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," now getting a mostly stiff, sometimes inspired production by the Great Falls Players.
While some of the action, which concerns a middle-aged man's attempts at infidelity, can seem forever stuck in the nudge-nudge humor of the 1960s and '70s, there are some hilarious gems.
The three-act play chronicles the zany attempts of Barney Cashman, a restaurateur, to inject some life into his life. At 47, he's a modern-day nebbish; Life, romance and sex seem to have passed him by.
To regain his lost years, he tries three times -- with a cold sophisticate, a kooky actress and his wife's best friend -- to have a tryst at his mother's boxy efficiency in New York City. Not surprisingly, they are all disasters.
But it's all in fun, and nothing is so serious that a joke can't be made about it. "Have you ever slept with a vaporizer?" Cashman asks one potential lover when she has a coughing fit. "No," she rejoinders. "But don't worry, I'll get around to everyone."
There are a million jokes like that, one after another, in the Simon universe of the quip and zinger.
But behind the mess is, of course, a message. That is: It's okay to think about cheating, but true, lasting love should prevail. And everything right, though it may be bittersweet, prevails in the end.
The delivery given here for this easy-to-like play is uneven. In the principal role, Paul Fox is too wooden at the start, reading Simon's easygoing lines with a stiff neck. The first act, sadly, is only mechanical and the best jokes are lost.
But with the appearance in the second act of Jeanette Maska as the ditsy actress, things loosen up considerably. Though she tends to go overboard one too many times, Maska has a bubbly nature that catches the audience unawares.
And in the third act, the understated and sublime acting of Robin Ward Savage hits all targets.
Savage, who looks like a PTA mother and plays a housewife, is a genuine surprise as she performs Simon's lines with perfect comic timing. A bundle of existential worries and eternal sighs, she gives the play a meaning beyond the schtick.
It is for performances like this that a theater-goer should sift through the bumpy parts.
Battered by the sexual revolution, confused by the changing world and clutching her purse, she is a worse-for-wear survivor who touches your heart. And, happily, your funnybone.
"Last of the Red Hot Lovers" will be performed by the Great Falls Players Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Grange Hall, 9818 Georgetown Pike, Great Falls. For information, call 391-1275.