By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is no doubt that Neil Simon is one of the great comedic geniuses in American theatre. With an innate understanding of what is funny, steeped in his early days as a writer when he penned classic skits for people like Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on “Your Show of Shows,” Simon found fame on stage on Broadway and on celluloid with films like “The Goodbye Girl” and “The Sunshine Boys.” His later largely autobiographical trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound was followed by Lost in Yonkers, which netted for him the Pulitzer Prize.
While the latest news of Simon, now 90, and his battle against Alzheimer’s Disease has given us a sad final chapter to an otherwise brilliant career, Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts has elected to present a double billing of one of Simon’s most successful works, The Odd Couple. The Kenner theatre company is featuring the male and female versions on successive nights, Thursday through Saturday with additional Sunday afternoon matinee performances.
Written in 1965 on the heel of successes like Little Me and Barefoot in the Park, Simon wrote the original play as a commentary on the outcome of divorce and a situation in which a Type A personality is forced to live with a Type B. The setup of a fidgety, anal compulsive man kicked out by his wife and having to find refuge with a slovenly, lackadaisical and set-in-his-ways sportswriter permitted the interaction of two men on stage, where one clearly took on the aspects of a wife in the relationship. It skirted the issues of what gay marriage might be like insofar as Simon presented both of the men as very heterosexual, but a play today might delve more deeply into Oscar Madison and Felix Unger’s relationship.
Simon wrote his The Female Odd Couple in 1985 as a way to update the comedy and permit ladies an opportunity to take on the roles of Olive Madison and Florence Unger in counterpoint to the original.
In Ricky Graham, Rivertown’s production team of Kelly Fouchi and Gary Rucker have clearly found the most capable and gifted director of comedies. When he’s not busy crafting and writing his own hilarious original works like Hello, Dahlin’ or Steel Poinsettias, Graham demonstrates an understanding of comedy and its many nuances that few can begin to grasp.
Graham’s imprint on both of these productions is indelible and most definitely a key factor in their successful implementation. But there are distinct differences in the material and, despite the best of intentions for Simon to put them on equal playing fields, the original play still outshines the female version for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is two hapless men living together is inherently more funny than two women.
As to the female cast, both Cammie West as Olive and Jessie Terrebonne as Florence are quite good in their leading roles. The updated script changes the male poker game to a game of Trivial Pursuit for the ladies. Both actresses have had ample starring roles previously, but there is a rapport they share on stage that shines through in these performances.
Other noted supporting cast members include the remarkable Lin Gaithright, who plays Renee, and Allee Peck, who plays the role of Mickey the cop.
The action really hits comedic heights when the two awkward Costazeuelo brothers show up as dates for Olive and Florence. Rucker plays Jesus (pronounced “Hay-soos”) and Sean Patterson, is the questionably more experienced older brother Manolo.
Rucker plays Felix Unger in the original version of the play, a fastidious anal compulsive and insecure man, who seems to revel in inadvertently making others unhappy. As Oscar Madison, Patterson excels as the down on his luck sportswriter, who is looking for a big payout to take care of his back child support and alimony.
The reason behind the weekly evening poker game is Madison’s attempt to extract money from his pals Murray the cop (Steve Smith), cheapskate Vinnie (Kyle Daigrepont), opinionated accountant Roy (Brian Stacey) and the compulsive Speed (Peter Webb). Unger is a part of this weekly ritual, but his unexplained absence at the game establishes the action early in the first of the two acts.
As Gwendolyn and Cecily, the two Pigeon sisters, West and Terrebonne are absolutely superb. Their onstage antics with Rucker as the beleaguered Felix are key to the best sections of the second act as Patterson’s character tries to comprehend his buddy’s serial cleanliness and his booby-trapping their dates with the British siblings.
While the original male version is the better crafted of the two, the female version does possess some interesting opportunities to bring the concept a little closer to modern day relevance. Unfortunately, 1985 is still more than three decades away from today. Still, the comedy is universal in any decade and any more modern updating might bring the Internet and cellphones into play, decidedly taking the focus off the human condition and concentrating instead on devices.
The set design by Derke Blanco is top notch and Linda Fried did outstanding design work on costumes.
All said, both versions are pleasant and make for a more than satisfying evening or afternoon of theatre.
The Odd Couple (male and female versions) continues the run at the Rivertown Theatre for the Performing Arts with the male version on November 10, 11, 17 and 19. The female version is November 12, 16 and 18. Evening performances are at 8:00 p.m., while Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m.