When talk turns to the most prolific playwrights of the 20th century, the name Neil Simon is at the top of the list.
Between 1961 and 2003, Simon penned nearly three dozen plays, most of which are still regularly performed at community and regional theaters across the country and around the world.
His 1965 opus “The Odd Couple” became a popular 1968 film and a long-running TV show.
“Barefoot in the Park” from 1963 was Simon’s longest-running Broadway hit, and was turned into a movie in 1967 starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as young newlyweds Paul and Corie, fresh off a honeymoon and struggling to adjust to married life.
Mildred Natwick played Corie’s meddling mother Mrs. Banks in the original Broadway production, while Myrna Loy and Dorothy Lamour were among the actresses to play Mrs. Banks in subsequent Broadway and regional stagings.
Now, Laguna Playhouse — which has presented many Simon plays over the years — is bringing “Barefoot in the Park” to the local stage March 1–22, with a new Mrs. Banks: famed comedienne Rita Rudner.
Rudner is a familiar face at the Playhouse. She has starred in several shows at the theater and performed her standup comedy to sold-out houses.
As an industry veteran, she has performed more than 2,000 solo shows in Las Vegas since the MGM Corporation built a theater for her in 2002. She was named Las Vegas “Comedian Of The Year” nine years in a row, and has starred in a handful of HBO specials.
“This is actually my fourth play here at Laguna Playhouse,” Rudner said during a rehearsal break this week. “It feels like home.”
As it should — Rudner and her husband Martin Bergman live in Dana Point, a few miles down Coast Highway. They also have an apartment in Las Vegas, where Rudner frequently performs. In fact, she just signed a new contract with Caesar’s Palace.
For Rudner, acting in “Barefoot in the Park” is an expansion with slight variations from what she does in standup.
“I love doing standup, but this is a different set of muscles,” she said.
Although Rudner has been touring her standup act, she had a window of time that allowed her to take the “Barefoot” role. She likes to take on projects that are out of her comfort zone, although she seems very comfortable with the upcoming production.
“The cast is wonderful, and we’re playing it as if it is the 1960s, so there are a lot of topical references,” Rudner said. “And I play an overbearing mother, so it’s not that much of a stretch. I have been an overbearing mother for 17 years.”
Rudner’s co-star is Paul Rodriguez, who has starred in more than 45 films and countless television series and comedy specials. Rudner has known Rodriguez for many years, but she just met the actors playing the young couple, Lily Gibson (last seen at Laguna Playhouse in “Harvey”) as Corie, and Nick Tag (Laguna Playhouse’s “The Graduate”) as Paul.
“You could not conjure two people more talented, more adorable, more completely right for their parts,” Rudner said. “They are really exceptional actors, as is everyone in the show.”
It’s a fun role for her as she gets to pretend to be someone else, as opposed to her standup, she noted. Although there are also some similarities.
“What is great about standup is that payoff is immediate. You know when people are going to laugh,” Rudner explained. “In plays, you have an immediate audience, and it’s nice to hear laughter. I have jokes that work every time. When you do something funny and people laugh, it’s a good feeling.”
Between her standup gigs, her theater work, and honing her autobiography, Rudner is busier than ever. What keeps her going?
“If something sounds like it will be fun, I say yes. Otherwise, I say no,” Rudner reasoned.
Laguna Playhouse audiences will be glad she said yes to “Barefoot in the Park.”
For more information, visit LagunaPlayhouse.com or call (949) 497-2787.