Sharp comedy enhances Neil Simon’s evergreen classic The Odd Couple
We think we know these guys, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, alias The Odd Couple. More than any other creations of the American theater in the last five decades, they have entered both the language and our consciousness. So have some of Neil Simon’s best lines: “What’s in brown and green sandwiches?” “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.”
Any company taking on this well-worn favorite has to sharpen some new edges while not betraying what has kept this show on the boards for 46 years. So for the current revival from Not Another Theater Company, a dinnertheater offering at the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, 528 Hiawatha Blvd., when this Felix (Gerrit Vander Werff Jr.) blows his sinuses clean, the roar can be heard to the last two rows. As for slobs, this Oscar (J. Brazill) exceeds all his forerunners. Not only does he eat the potato chips off the floor, he has been known to harvest the smaller bits stuck on his dirty socks (the ones with the holes in the toes).
The father-and-son directing team of Daniel and Steve Rowlands appears to have put months of study into rethinking and reshaping all of the action and characters. Father Steve has a lengthy list of acting credits stretching back to companies in Rome, Utica, Sherburne and Morrisville. He and son Daniel have appeared recently with Syracuse companies, playing two jurors in Not Another Theater Company’s Twelve Angry Men last year.
Their preparation is immediately evident in the all-important poker game exposition scene, where the four buddies tell us all we need to know. In the countless productions mounted in this area, not to mention the 1968 movie adaptation, this is the first one in which Murray the Cop (Greg J. Hipius) gets a laugh from his hesitant, overly deliberate shuffling of the cards.
The quartet of card players as written are basically little more than types, but the Rowlandses and their actors give each one a distinctive shtick. To pull this off we can see the benefits NATC founder Dustin Czarny has accumulated by building what is in effect a repertory company of pals, many of whom also appear in the company’s allied improvisational troupe, Don’t Feed the Actors. Hipius’ Murray, for example, adopts an adenoidal whine to give us a self-righteous authoritarian who leaps easily to fright mode.
Next to him is Speed (James Uva), reincarnated as an explosive blowhard. Next to him is the henpecked Vinnie (David Vickers), whose fatuousness is signaled by his trembling chin. Vickers, it should be remembered, was a leading man in NATC’s inaugural production, Run for Your Wife, a year ago. Lastly, to get a handle on Roy, often the vaguest of the four, the always protean Alan D Stillman has made himself unrecognizable again. Last seen with straight blond hair, here he sports frizzed-up brown locks, sliding spectacles and a kind of nerdy hunch of the shoulders.
The Odd Couple has some ladies in the show, too, with memorable supporting turns from the actresses playing the Pigeon Sisters. Perfect British accents and blissfully unaware provocativeness (they loll in “nature’s own” in front of the air conditioner to cool off) keep sisters Gwendolyn (Wendy Viggiano, formerly Sikorski) and Cecily (Anne Freund) sharply on the mark.
Most of the evening, of course, belongs to the two leads, digging into what look like formulaic characters and finding depth. They completely banish the memories of their respective predecessors from cinema and television, Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman as Oscar, and Jack Lemmon and Tony Randall as Felix. Brazill’s expansive Oscar reveals a vein of needfulness beneath the bluster, possibly a touch of the late Jackie Gleason. And Vander Werff’s Felix comes with a startling spine of steel, a neatnik who won’t be pushed around.
Extra applause is also earned by costume and props people Crystal Roupas and Sarah Barden. Felix’s tight gray suit and narrow 1960s tie enhance his lines. And Oscar’s many changes of loud costumes contain enough foodstuffs for dinner, and not just on the socks.
This production runs through Saturday, April 2. See Times Table for information.