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Theater Review - Red, hot and blue

Courtney Patterson's performance — make that performances — provide the most compelling quality of Aurora Theatre's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Written by Neil Simon and first staged in 1969, the play chronicles married, 47-year-old restaurant owner Barney Cashman (Al Stilo) and his three disastrous attempts to join in the sexual revolution.

Patterson plays each of the three women Barney entices to his den of inequity — which is, in fact, his elderly mother's doily-festooned apartment. The exuberant comic actress seems to put a decade between each character: Elaine, a brassy, aggressive adulteress; Bobbi, a bubbly hippie-chick with wild mood swings; and Jeannette, a repressed, neurotic old friend of Barney and his wife.

The swinging, "Free Love" era is dated now, but the real problem with Red Hot Lovers is that Simon is such a square. When Elaine teases modest Barney by using words like "screw," you feel the playwright's discomfort more than his hero's. When Bobbi pressures Barney to smoke a joint, he's so overcome by the high, it's like watching Reefer Madness. Ever the moralist, Simon takes such pains to make Barney a "nice guy" that you never really believe he'll get it on with another woman, keeping the play free of suspense.

Having a single actress play all three women should ideally imply something about the different facets of female sexuality, but Lovers' mechanical jokiness keeps the production from attaining real insight. Instead, Simon offers labored running gags, like Elaine's hacking cough and cigarette cravings. Patterson finds plenty of humor in the way Jeannette nervously clutches her pocketbook long after arriving at the apartment, but the play turns the purse into a tedious point of contention.

Despite the three faces of Patterson and Stilo's likable work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers turns out to be a turn-off.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers plays through Aug. 29 at Aurora Theatre, 3087 Main St., Duluth. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $16-$20. Call 770-476-7926. www.auroratheatre.com.