When a free-spirited woman settles down with a straight-laced attorney in a cramped New York City apartment, the growing pains of love materialize.
That’s the premise of “Barefoot in the Park,” the 1963 Neil Simon romantic comedy that is opening Gloucester Stage Company’s 40th season this week.
The play, which runs June 7-30, was the award-winning writer’s longest-running hit and the 10th longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history.
The Gloucester Stage cast is made up of two real-life married couples, directed by Shana Gozansky, who is also married with a young child.
“So there has been a lot of discussion about marriage during rehearsals,” Gozansky said. “The play is about two people growing up together, and they don’t know how to do it. What makes a marriage work is not just the good stuff but how you handle the hard stuff, and that’s what the play is about.”
McCaela Curran Donovan and Joe Short, who have been married four years, play newlyweds Corie and Paul, while Paula Plum plays Corie’s mother and Richard Snee plays the neighbor who lives in the attic of the couple’s apartment building. Plum and Snee will celebrate 40 years of marriage next year.
In addition to the realities of living together, the young couple also face the pitfalls of living on the top floor of a five-story city walk-up.
“I think in some ways the play is really about how we have to change, how we have to open ourselves up to another person when we are in a relationship with them,” Gozansky said. “Corie says there are ‘watchers’ and ‘doers,’ and Paul is a watcher and Corie is a doer.
“Paul is driven by the right way to do things, and he likes routine and structure. Corie wants to live life and wants every experience she can,” she said. “They have to find a way to meet in the middle. It is about what you imagine a relationship to be and what it is actually.”
The director explains that the idea of walking barefoot in the park becomes an emblem of this couple’s conflict.
“The playwright is revealing what happens when that initial romance period ends and the marriage begins,” she said.
When the play was written in the early 1960s, couples got married and then “grew up.”
“Nowadays, I think a lot of people grow up and then get married,” Gozansky said. “But the universal theme is not the order of things but what it means to make yourself part of the team — basically, don’t be selfish.”
Plum, an award-winning actress and director, said that her character, Ethel Banks, is a woman who hasn’t had a life other than motherhood.
“That was her job and a lifestyle, but then it gets usurped by her daughter’s marriage, and she finds herself adrift at sea with no anchor and she doesn’t know what to do with herself,” Plum said. “So she drops in to visit her daughter, and hilarity ensues.”
Plum noted that the main plot is about the young couple, and the subplot involves the mother and what happens to her when they fix her up with the neighbor, Victor Velasco.
“That neighbor is a crazy man played by my husband in real life,” Plum said. “It’s always fun with my husband onstage. He is seriously the funniest man in the room.”
Plum and Snee met in 1977 when both worked at Boston’s famed Parker House. She was the concierge, and he was the night manager or “lord of the darkness,” as they used to joke.
In looking at the overall characters, Gozansky said that in some ways, it is easy to think of Corie as flighty and childish. But in reality, both she and Paul are immature in very different ways.
“He thinks she will settle, and she thinks he will go along with whatever she says, and that’s not the case,” the director said. “It’s not that she is willfully staying immature, but she is trying to figure out how to create the magic, which is a key part of how she lives, while also creating stability. Their marriage is just starting, but what happens simultaneously is how the older people are equally changed by their adventures together.”
Gozansky applauds the late playwright for his masterful scripts.
“Neil Simon is the master of sitcom-style comedy. He understands the rhythm and structure of a joke,” she said. “There are a lot of jokes in a short amount of time. It’s a surprising fast play.”
Simon later would earn Tony Awards for “The Odd Couple” in 1965, “Biloxi Blues” in 1985 and “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991.
Gozanksy said that the most important thing is to come to the theater ready to have a good time.
“And I think to celebrate the growth of marriage or the growth of a relationship,” she said. “Any of us in a long-term relationship will be able to recognize the kind of changes that need to be made by individuals for the team to work.”
If you go
What: “Barefoot in the Park”
When: June 7-30, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Where: Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester
How much: $15 to $48
More information: www.gloucesterstage.com or 978-281-4433