By Philip Pearce
WHEN I WAS A LAD the harshest thing you could say about someone with a cruel sense of humor was that they would laugh at a crutch. But when you come right down to it, Neil Simon’s popular and durable comedy The Odd Couple, which just opened at the Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, does just that.
Unless you were unborn or comatose in the middle of the 20th century, you know at least a bit about what happens when neurotic neatnik Felix Ungar moves in with his accommodating slob of a buddy Oscar Madison. If you missed their misadventures in the 1965 Broadway stage hit, then surely you saw the Lemmon-Matthau movie or at least caught a re-run or two of that long-running television spin-off with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
When artistic director Julie James told us on opening night that Jewel had booked Felix and Oscar as the closing act of their current season without realizing this was the fiftieth anniversary of the year their movie premiered, it got me thinking. Why has The Odd Couple lasted so long? What’s there in this script that could launch more than half a century of stage and small screen repeats and gender-bending adaptations, not to mention a Saturday morning cartoon send-up, when other twentieth-century American comedy hits have quietly drifted past the horizon? Why don’t I hear about revivals of The Show-Off or The Voice of the Turtle?
Reflecting on the staying power of Felix and Oscar as I drove home, I came up with a disturbing answer. What Simon’s script and this slickly mounted revival both exploit is the underlying cruelty of great comedy. American stage humor that has survived isn’t cute people saying and doing cute things. It’s mostly flawed people like Oscar and Felix valiantly setting out to conquer major real-life tragedies and falling on their faces. The magnificent blunders in a Shakespeare tragedy call up our pity. But when a Molière or a Neil Simon crowns heroic dreams with the banana-peel pratfalls of flawed human frailty, we swallow our guilt and laugh.
What you may have forgotten about this odd couple is that when frantic Felix, dumped by the wife he still adores, shows up hours late for the usual Friday poker game at Oscar’s place, he isn’t cute. He is seriously suicidal. Shaun Carroll plays him with the desperate, squeaky intensity of a man as innately lovable as he is chronically impossible to live with. It shouldn’t be funny that this agonized guy is too tense and uncoordinated to throw himself out of Oscar’s twelfth floor apartment window, but somehow it is. It shouldn’t be funny that the other poker players are relieved to learn that Felix has avoided death by nervously vomiting up the sleeping pills they discover he’s swallowed while using the john. But you laugh. And you end up wondering how David Ledingham’s wonderful crumb-dropping Oscar takes so many days of Felix’s obsessive scrubbing and scouring of the littered apartment before changing from a nice guy host into an enraged and bellowing madman.
It’s a brisk, carefully organized, loud and funny production. Maybe just a shade too loud to start with. The man in the seat next to me murmured “Too much yelling” as the lights came up after Act 1. He had a possible point. Director Stephen Muterspaugh’s cast had been steadily dealing with some highly charged material and it might have been possible to tease out more vocal variety if they had discovered moments that worked as well or even better without a full volume attack.
That said, two of the most effective parts of the whole evening are a pair of long silent sections that both happen in Act 1. First of these is the brilliant pantomime of four men who are seated around a poker table as the play opens. The wordless actions of this quartet establish the individuality of each player—plodding but organized Murray (Geoff [Jeffrey] Fiorito), wise guy Speed (Scott Coopwood), bearded veteran Roy (Jesse Caldwell) and newlywed Vinnie (Andrew Davids)—simply by the quirks, oddities and annoyances with which each handles the cards and chips of a five-card poker game. The sequence also provides advance warning that we live in a world where even your nearest and dearest friends are sometimes wired to annoy the hell out of you.
A second winning but wordless sequence is the joyous clean-up of the trash and detritus of the poker game which Carroll silently performs like a Gene Kelly dance routine at the end of Act 1—a brief and welcome burst of pure joy in the life of the troubled Felix.
The neater balance of loud and soft voices that my seat-mate longed for happened and continued with the second act arrival of a couple of giggling English divorcees Oscar has invited to a dinner he helps Felix ruin in a shared orgy of tardiness, tears and charred beefsteak. The new guests are played with delightful female legwork, hilarious sisterly squeals and breezily squashed British vowels by the blonde and compact April Green and the blonde and statuesque Erika Schindele and they are a hoot.
Like the poker playing foursome, these supporting roles are written with a sharpness and sympathy that demand—and get—casting and performances as full and rounded as those of the two central characters.
Rick Ortenblad’s set is spectacularly right and gets the quick scene shifts it deserves from the tech team. B. Modern’s costumes effectively establish the sixties period including those four poker players.
The Odd Couple continues at the Colligan Theater in the Tannery through May 27th.
Photo by Steve DeBartolomeo