There’s a secret formula to creating a great production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. And really, it’s so simple: cast two men who have great chemistry and a strong friendship off stage to portray two men who are at their wit’s end with each other on stage. By doing so you’ll guarantee a show that delivers all the original zings and pops as intended, but also carries with it an even deeper rendering of true friendship that is telegraphed with each gesture, look and inflection. Right now Connecticut Repertory Theatre is mounting a fantastic production of The Odd Couple and while it’s waaaaaay off-off Broadway (in the well appointed Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre) this production is as sharp and fresh as any you’ll see nestled in one of the revered theatres on 42nd Street.
First – a little history. Pat Sajak (who seems to embody Felix Unger from head to toe) and veteran TV news anchorman Joe Moore (who gives us a likeable, easygoing Oscar Madison) have been friends since their days of serving together in Vietnam. They’ve stepped into the shoes of this odd couple before, and have been in a few other shows together as well. They are reprising the roles now not so much because it suits them, but because it’s something they can do for fun, when their schedules permit and when the planets align. This alone brings a base-note of excitement to the experience, both for the actors as well as the audience - resulting in a classic play imbued with passion, and a feeling that everyone is here for the pure joy of theatre.
The Odd Couple is, of course, a play that lives in the shadow of its own legacy. The original play spawned a movie which in turn gave us the much loved TV show that became so popular it eclipsed everything which inspired it … and so deeply embedded are Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to audiences everywhere that the first order of business is to wave away any preconceived notions an audience may have of what to expect. However, five minutes into this production all memories of TV are forgotten as director Vincent J. Cardinal welcome you into the world he has both mimicked as well as created anew.
It’s a hot night and the guys - Murray, Speed, Vinnie and Roy – are gathered at Oscar’s cluttered apartment for their weekly poker game. It’s obvious Oscar is a good natured slob, one that his buddies accept cheerfully and without qualm. They barely bat an eye as he offers them an assortment of sandwiches (“Would you rather have green or brown?”) summoned forth from his refrigerator which hasn’t worked in 2 weeks. He offers up these delicacies with a side of warm Cokes and stale potato chips. Despite the questionable buffet it’s obvious why the gang finds Oscar so enjoyable: they love his easy going nature, and appreciate how his apartment is a haven away from their wives – one where they can smoke their cigars, spill their beers, not worry about crumbs, and not watch their manners.
Late to this party is the otherwise always-punctual Felix who eventually arrives despondent, sighing, and dejected – but for all the heat and despair arrives looking as crisp as a newly-minted ten dollar bill. He takes the time to hang up his jacket while still making it perfectly clear that his life is over. Seems that he is splitting from his wife of 12 years, Francis. (Twelve years doesn’t mean you’re a happy couple – twelve years means you’re a long couple the poker buddies note).
From here we all know the story – Oscar offers his pal Felix a place to live, and within weeks the once shabby apartment is pristine, odor free, and nothing short of a pressure cooker for these two opposite personalities who both just want to be themselves … and want the other guy to change.
As the two men devise ways to keep their relationship from imploding, they actually delight in finding ways of torturing each other. The result is one situation after another that leaves the audience laughing so hard that there are actual moments when you can see people doubling over in their seats with the force of the hilarity. Director Cardinal makes sure that this comedy is broad and silly but he keeps the actors on a short leash – Moore and Sajak give just enough to get the laugh, but they never topple over into buffoonery or clownishness which is what makes this comedy so thoroughly satisfying.
One surprise – I never realized how much Swingers owes The Odd Couple; Jon Favreau’s love-lorn Mike who can’t meet a lovely woman without recounting the entire story of his failed relationship takes a page directly from Simon’s book – with Vaughn’s Trent nothing more than a cleaned up, jazzier Oscar Madison. Of course, while Swingers had its charm it loses its luster in the wake of seeing the original master- Simon’s Unger – passing around photos of his wife (even his living room!) to the two cooing Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily. For their part Gwen (Liz Larsen) and Cecily (Kathleen McNenny) are a throwback to the type of good-time gals who still drew the line; while their scenes elevate the chit chat to somewhat racier fare there’s still something quite chaste about it, even as they burble on how the heat forced them to strip down in front of the refrigerator. Such women probably do still exist, but it’s been a while since they’ve been so delightfully written. Larsen and McNenny provide a giddy, sugary diversion, like maraschino cherries in a good, strong Manhattan.
For a play that was written in 1965 The Odd Couple holds up remarkably well due in no small part to the ageless themes which – no doubt – will still be occupying people for centuries to come. So, whether the choice of music is “Mancini or Sinatra?” or “Ke$ha or Drake?” is irrelevant. There will always be marriages in crisis, always be friends who are willing to test the bonds in times of need, and always be conflict that can be mined for comedy. Probably the only thing that you won’t find anymore is a landlord who lets a single guy rattle around an 8 room apartment in Manhattan. Actually – you probably won’t find an 8 room apartment in Manhattan at all.
Solid from start to finish with beautiful touches throughout and a charming set (Michael Anania) that will give you plenty to look at, the only thing odd you’ll find in this show is in the title.
Neil Simon’s 1965 classic
THE ODD COUPLE
starring Pat Sajak as Felix and Joe Moore as Oscar
Directed by Vincent J. Cardinal . Performances run June 21 – July 7
at The Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre at Connecticut Repertory Theatre Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) is the professional producing arm of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. To purchase tickets, click here.