Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
Last of the Red Hot Lovers is one of the most amusing of Neil Simon’s comedies. It focuses on Barney Cashman, a forty-seven-year-old owner of a seafood restaurant who is afraid that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s is passing him by. Over the space of nine months, he invites three different women to his mother’s Manhattan apartment in an attempt to have an afternoon of extramarital sex. None of the affairs is consummated, however, and Barney decides after the last one that he would prefer a romantic afternoon with his wife, Thelma.
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Of the three women who meet Barney, the first two are caricatures of sexually liberated women from the 1960’s. In act 1, Elaine Navazio comes to the afternoon tryst as a veteran of casual sex. In her late thirties and married, Elaine indulges frequently in extramarital affairs simply because they make her feel good. Flippant and irreverent, Elaine is openly contemptuous of Barney’s maladroit, unsophisticated style (he is nervous, wanting the affair to be “meaningful”) and bombards him with insults that hit like machine-gun fire. She is interested only in their sensual experience and is comically desperate for a cigarette throughout their meeting. When the encounter fails to produce sexual satisfaction, Elaine leaves, and Barney vows never to be tempted again. Yet eight months later, he repeats the experience with Bobbi Michele.
Bobbi is an uninhibited and adventurous twenty-seven-year-old woman who entices Barney into smoking his first marijuana and regales him with wild stories about her prospects in show business, about men attempting to have sex with her, and about the lesbian Nazi vocal coach with whom she lives. The totally bizarre Bobbi generates tremendous laughter as her high-energy, nonstop talk reduces Barney to bewilderment. The frenetic pace that was established in the first act with Elaine is maintained, and perhaps even topped, in this segment.
In act 3, less than a month later, Barney is attempting to seduce Jeanette Fisher, who is thirty-nine years old and the wife of a close friend. Unlike the promiscuous Elaine and Bobbi, Jeanette is a reluctant visitor, joining Barney only because she thinks her husband, Mel, is having an affair of his own. Depressed and guilt-ridden, an unwilling participant in the prevailing sexual climate, Jeanette lectures Barney on moral issues and challenges him to prove that there are decent people in the world. The comic energy in this segment is generated by the reversal of Barney’s role. In this act Barney has become the aggressor, having gained savoir faire and confidence from his previous meetings. Rich laughter is generated by the conflict between Barney’s new impatience and Jeanette’s reticence. Barney finally sees the wisdom of not engaging in illicit sex, and when he and Jeanette part at the end of the play, Barney seems to be cured of his desire for promiscuity.
In addition to being a very funny play, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a critique of the permissive 1960’s from a conservative point of view. Simon’s message is that the conventional values of marriage, home, and family are still sacrosanct, even though they seem old-fashioned in the prevailing cultural climate. Ironically, Simon’s conservative thinking serves him well in this case. Looking back, one can see that the permissiveness of the 1960’s was beginning to fade as Simon was writing this comedy. The increasingly moralistic climate of the 1980’s would make this play look like an eloquent and prophetic swan song for an era. Thus, in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Simon added, perhaps inadvertently, a serious quality to his comic writing. It was not, however, a seriousness that all the critics considered profound, subtle, or artistic.