How many plays can you think of that have generated a film adaptation (and a 30-years-later sequel), a long-running sitcom, a short-running African American-cast sitcom, an animated children’s series, an alternate version with the male and female roles reversed, and an updated version with an all new title?
The answer of course is a grand total of 1, the play in question being none other than Neil Simon’s 1965 classic The Odd Couple, the comic genius’s follow-up to Barefoot In The Park, the smash hit that put him on the Broadway map.
Local revivals of Barefoot have been plentiful, with three of them reviewed here in the last two years, but it’s been quite a while since the original Odd Couple has had an L.A. area revival, and certainly not one the caliber of the one now wowing audiences at the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates. (No, it’s not too far a drive for two hours of virtually non-stop laughter.)
The Odd Couple is of course the tale of two 40something best friends who find themselves in a kind of same-sex marriage decades before such a concept even existed. All right, it’s true that Oscar and Felix are straight, and that there’s no sex in their “marriage,” but then again the same thing can be said of many longtime couples who are legally wed, right?
Oscar Madison’s and Felix Ungar’s cohabitation starts off at one of their weekly poker games. Recently divorced Oscar (Nick Santa Maria) and poker buddies Murray, Vinnie, Speed, and Roy are midgame one evening when Felix (Larry Raben) arrives late, something virtually unheard of from Mr. Punctual himself. It turns out his wife Frances has asked for a divorce.
Given Felix’s distraught state and the way he keeps looking out Oscar’s twelfth floor window as if taking a flying leap were the first thing on his mind, what’s a best friend to do but invite the potential suicide to stick around for a while, at least till he can get himself back on his emotional feet?
Two weeks later, Oscar’s house guest is driving him crazy with his fussiness, and even the weekly poker guests find themselves beating a swift retreat from Felix’s constant sweeping and picking up after them. Then Oscar comes up with the perfect Operation Fix Felix. He will invite Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, the sexy British sisters who live upstairs, for dinner. Surely some time spent with people “whose voices are higher than ours” will be just the thing to break the tension building up between two best friends on the verge of becoming each other’s worst enemy.
Casting the right pair of actors is the essential first step in insuring a winning production of The Odd Couple, and in Santa Maria and Raben, the as always splendid director James W. Gruessing, Jr. could not have found a more winning pair. Santa Maria, whose brilliantly over-the-top Pseudolis in the Norris’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum won him a Scenie for Best Performance By A Lead Actor/Musical underplays Oscar to perfection, does a great slow burn, cries real tears where many actors would fake it, and makes the part entirely his own and not a carbon copy of Walter Matthau, the original stage and screen Oscar. There’s also not a hint of either Art Carney (Broadway’s Felix) or Jack Lemmon (the movie’s Mr. Ungar) in Raben’s tour de force work here, though it does owe a bit of debt to The Producer’s Leo Bloom, the role which won Raben the same Scenie the previous year. A generous Santa Maria plays straight man to adorably goofy Raben, who gets a gazillion laughs, has an entire repertoire of snapshot-worthy facial expressions, and his very own absolutely authentic crying jag.
There’s some snappy supporting work from poker players Jason Sluyter as sweet, meticulous Murray, Jason M. Hammond as nervous, henpecked Vinnie, Craig Mitchell as snippy, sarcastic Speed, and David Diestel as witty, odor-sensitive Roy.
Finally, there’s the couldn’t-be-better, couldn’t-be-cuter, couldn’t-be-funnier distaff duo of Sara J. Stuckey and Rachel Scott, perfectly in sync as the flighty Pigeons and well worth a show of their own.
Once again director Gruessing doubles terrifically as set designer creating a gem of a Riverside Drive apartment for Oscar to make a mess of and Felix to straighten up, one to which Christina L. Munich adds subtle lighting design touches. 1960s costumes and sound design are likewise topnotch. Chris Warren Murry is stage manager.
Simon’s mastery of the one-liner has never been sharper than it is in The Odd Couple, from Oscar’s “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. The green is either very new cheese or very old meat,” or his “Don’t threaten me with jail, Blanche, because it’s not a threat. With my expenses and my alimony, a prisoner takes home more pay than I do.” Then there’s his pitch-perfect description of the ever-anxious Felix: “He’s too nervous to kill himself. Wears his seat belt in a drive-in movie.” Comic jewels each and every one of them.
Still, it’s not just Neil Simon’s trademark one-liners that have made The Odd Couple such a long-lasting, much imitated comedy classic. In Oscar and Felix, Simon created a pair of characters that each of us can recognize bits of ourselves in. The Odd Couple gives us hope that we can indeed “all get along” if we’re willing to learn from each other and to bend a bit. If Oscar and Felix can survive each other’s differences, then so too perhaps can we.
Norris Center For The Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.
February 4, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger