By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
The Odd Couple is back again, and from the joyous good time the opening night audience at the Pierson Playhouse seemed to be having, the story of Felix and Oscar’s experiment as roomies still resonates today.
Neil Simon’s hilarious play opened on stage in 1967, became a hit movie, transferred onto television for five years in the 1970s, had a sequel in 1998, and was revived on Broadway in 2005. Evidently, there is just something about the play that keeps viewers wanting more.
Loosely based on Simon’s brother, who was divorced and rooming with a divorced friend to cut expenses, The Odd Couple grew from there.
The Theatre Palisades production, directed by Jonathan Fahn and based on Simon’s original play, takes place in three acts in Oscar Madison’s Upper West Side apartment. As with other of Simon’s plays, setting the action in one place suits the close quarters needed for the both the compressed Simon wit and physical hijinks.
The play rises and falls on the two main characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Felix is disconsolate, even suicidal, after his wife informs him she wants a divorce. Oscar, whose wife divorced him three months before, invites his friend him to move in with him. As everybody knows, sharing living arrangements exposes ingrained personality traits and behaviors. And with Felix the fussy, compulsively neat person sharing digs with Oscar, the slob, the drama and humor are set. Oscar is essentially an easygoing guy who puts up with Felix, but the conflict is based on Felix’s efforts to change everything and Oscar’s resistance to change.
TP’s Oscar, Michael Sorich, is a loud and lovable lout, bigger than life. Scott Gardner plays Felix more self-deprecating and insufferably self-defeating than fussy.
If it weren’t for Simon’s sparkling humor and the actors’ terrific timing and acrobatic performances, the play’s datedness would be distracting. After all, we’ve moved on in the last 50 years from the stereotypical Neanderthal Everyman. Today’s man might very well know not only where the kitchen is located but also enjoy exploring recipes.
There are also pals—Murray, Speed, Roy, and Vinnie—who show for their weekly poker game at Oscar’s place. Each manages to convey a distinctive personality and Simon has given each a golden moment or two.
The ensemble give-and-take offers some of the richest, funniest moments in the play. Murray (Bob Grochau) is the cop everyone expects to know the answers when Felix appears to missing. Vinnie (Stephen Holland) is fastidiously anal, tediously reminding the others that he must go home no later than midnight.
Roy (Mark Fields Davidson) is absolutely killing every time he opens his Bronx- tinged mouth. This living, breathing thermometer, humidifier, and clean freak’s body language is funnier than his lines.
Speed (Stevie Johnson) is the dude, sharp dresser, wry and hip.
The two young English sisters, who live upstairs, provide the necessary right-turn in the plot. They are amusingly silly, but especially in the final act, cute and sexy. In the opening night performance, Star Calvet played Gwendolyn; Samantha Labrecque played Cecily. In creating these two sisters, Simon no doubt was paying homage to the two sisters in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Simon never falls into the topical humor that is so much of the repertoire in today’s comedy. At times, however, the repartee comes off as a string of one-liners, thankfully saved by excellent blocking and energetic physical action.
It’s always well to remember that Theatre Palisades is a volunteer company and to be commended for the ensemble work that goes into this production, from set design, sound and lighting to all the back office duties.
The Odd Couple continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2p.m. though Oct. 9 at Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Rd. Contact (310) 454-1970 or theatrepalisades.org.