Oscar becomes “Olive” and Felix “Florence” as the classic Neil Simon comedy The Odd Couple takes on a distinctively distaff tone at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre in a production of The Odd Couple (Female Version) so all-around topnotch, you’ll be asking yourself, “Can this possibly be community theater?”
1965’s The Odd Couple may well hold the record as the most adapted of Neil Simon’s multitude of hits, having spawned a 1968 film adaptation (and a 30-years-later movie sequel), a long-running sitcom, a short-running African-American-cast sitcom, an animated children’s series, an updated stage version (2004’s Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple), a Matthew Perry sitcom set to debut this year on CBS, and the Morgan-Wixson’s latest, 1985’s The Odd Couple (Female Version) with the male and female roles reversed ?
Like the Broadway original that preceded it by twenty years, The Odd Couple (Female Version) recounts the comic tale of two longtime 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 Olive and Florence 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?
TV producer Olive Madison and housewife/mother Florence Ungar’s cohabitation starts off during one of their weekly Trivial Pursuit get-togethers with a quartet of mutual gal pals, the popular board game taking the place of poker in The Odd Couple (Female Version). Recently divorced Olive (Dalia Vosylius) and fellow Trivial Pursuers Mickey, Renee, Sylvie, and Vera (formerly Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie) are midgame one evening when Florence (Charlotte Edmondson) arrives late, something virtually unheard of from Ms. Punctual himself.
The reason, it turns out, is that her 5’3” cowboy boots-and-oversized toupee-wearing husband Sydney has asked for a divorce.
Given Florence’s distraught state and the amount of time she spends in Olive’s bathroom (as if taking an overdose or slashing her wrists or sticking her head out the tiny bathroom window and slamming it down on her neck were the first thing on her mind), what’s a best friend to do but invite the potential suicide to stick around for a while, at least till Florence can get herself back on her emotional feet?
Two weeks later, Olive’s house guest is driving her crazy with her fussiness, and even the weekly game players find themselves beating a swift retreat from Florence’s constant sweeping and picking up after them.
And so Olive comes up with the perfect Operation Fix Florence. She will invite over for dinner upstairs neighbors Manolo and Jesús Costazuela (the Female Version’s answer to British sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon) Surely some time spent with the “sexiest guys you ever saw” will be just the thing needed 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 successful production of The Odd Couple, whether as Oscar and Felix or as Olive and Florence, and here director Michael Rothhaar has hit the jackpot not once but twice.
It’s hard to imagine any so-called “professional” theater coming up with a better duo than the absolutely splendid Vosylius and Edmondson. The former gives us an Olive whose tough-gal exterior hides more than a smidgen of mush, while the latter’s equally finely-tuned Florence may seem the ultimate prim-and-proper neatnik, yet she too has unexpected depths and (like Olive) a heart of gold.
Under Rothhaar’s astute, snappy direction, it’s not only Vosylius and Edmondson who shine. There’s all-around splendid supporting work from Ariella Fiore as sassy, wisecracking Sylvie, Sarah D. Gibson as unflappable tough cop Mickey, Mara Roshal as earnest space cadet Vera, and Randi Tahara as plain-spoken but gossipy Renee.
Finally, there’s the scene-stealing duo of Jason Avalos and Scott Gerard as the Spanish-accented Costazuelas, each one funnier and more charming than the other, Avalos as the spiffily groomed, muy emotional Jesús and Gerard as suave-and-sensitive ladies’ man Manolo.
Scenic/lighting designer/producer William Wilday has created and lit a finely detailed Riverside Drive apartment that would do many a professional theater proud (kudos shared with set decorator/prop designer Paige Bossier), while costume designer Kristy Pace has come up with a big bunch of 1980s outfits that reveal almost as much about the characters wearing them as Simon’s script does. Anya Ivanova is production stage manager.
Simon’s mastery of the one-liner has never been sharper than it is in The Odd Couple (Female Version), from Olive’s “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. The green is either very new cheese or very old meat,” to her “Florence doesn’t play around. She didn’t even take off her clothes when she had her children.” And then there are the one-liners Simon has come up with specifically for The Odd Couple (Female Version). Take for instance when the answer to “How many times a year does a penguin have sex?” turns out to be “Once,” and Sylvie comes back with, “Once? Jesus, I married a penguin!” Comic jewels each and every one of them.
Still, it’s not merely Neil Simon’s trademark one-liners that have made The Odd Couple such a long-lasting, frequently imitated comedy classic. In Olive and Florence, Simon has created a pair of characters that each of us can recognize bits of ourselves in, something West Side audiences will be discovering for themselves over the next few weeks at the Morgan-Wixson, whether they be Olives or Florences or a bit of both.
Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
January 18, 2014
Photos: Joel D. Castro