Anyone alive in the latter part of the 20th century knows something about Neil Simon’s Tony-Award-winning hit comedy The Odd Couple. Premiering in 1965, the play was adapted into a film in 1968 and then splashed into television history during the 1970s. Three comic geniuses—Art Carney, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Randall—played the fastidious, neurotic half of the couple, Felix Unger, while Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman provided the slovenly, cigar-smoking foil Oscar Madison. Media icons, every one. So it’s inevitable that Santa Cruz audiences will bring their own preconceptions to the Jewel Theatre’s smart version of the Simon comedy classic.
Directed with sitcom style by Stephen Muterspaugh, the production moves fast and looks terrific. A vintage gem, the play pulls us back into the era where Mancini and Sinatra poured from record players. Oscar, a sportswriter, composes his newspaper articles on a typewriter, and as the play opens we see a quartet of men sitting around a poker table. The cigars, late-night poker games and rotary telephones aren’t the only indications that we’ve been plunged into a whole other zeitgeist. Felix Unger (played with cringeworthy fussiness by Shaun Carroll) has just been kicked out by his wife. When he arrives at Oscar’s apartment late for the card game, he’s an emotional mess. Well, nobody wants to play cards anymore, so the others leave and Oscar invites his friend to move in with him.
The opening act of Odd Couple is a comic delight, loaded with slick dialogue glistening with men-in-groups repartee and the growing tension between a slob and an OCD perfectionist. In the second act, we meet two young women Oscar has invited to dinner, a pair of English sisters who live in an upstairs apartment. Felix has knocked himself out cooking, setting an impeccable table, but things start to go wrong. He breaks down and begins to relive the pain of his failed marriage. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that the women are sympathetic. Oscar explodes and kicks Felix out. Of course, things are resolved in the end, but not before Oscar (played with Ralph Kramden ferocity by David Ledingham) has chewed and swallowed most of the scenery out of his love/hate frustration with the irritating Felix.
A special shout-out to the poker players—Jesse Caldwell as the no-nonsense Roy, a tightly wound Scott Coopwood as Speed, Andrew Davis as Vinnie, and Geoff Fiorito as Murray the cop—a close knit ensemble of professionals showcasing just how good live theater can be. The heavy lifting in this production falls to Ledingham, whose looks channel James Garner more than shaggy Walter Matthau. His zest and timing move everything along with sparkle.
The English gals are priceless as sketched by April Green and Erika Schindele—their ditzy blonde giggling and leggy antics (great shoes by B. Modern) are straight out of Goldie Hawn’s glory days. But that’s part of where the Simon play exposes its mid-20th-century roots—New York, urban, pre-psychedelics and sexual revolution, a time before enormous change in social customs, gender roles and cultural acceptance. Period pieces can flourish in dramatic form, but comedy lives and dies on its interrogation of the immediate context; the here-and-now world. Simon’s work reflects a culmination of values on the verge of being (largely) overthrown.
How men act in a domestic setting without a female housewife is the linchpin of this comedy, and it is one that doesn’t travel into the 21st century without considerable faultlines. The male stereotypes Simon explored have been mashed, if not swallowed. Ditto for females. We can admire the cast’s abilities, but find it harder to gain traction with women as airheads who live to care for men, and men whose immediate goals involve beer, poker, and the aforementioned airheads. Felix, as written by Simon, isn’t gay, he’s simply an insufferable perfectionist. It’s a hard character to play today with complete conviction.
Pro tip: if the contemporary dramatic sitcom by Kate Hawley hadn’t just been seen on the same stage, it might have been easier to surrender to the Neil Simon scenario. Hawley’s Coming of Age was fresh, surprising and relevant. The Simon play has some enormous laughs, and some wise sparkling lines. But its moral assumptions make it a stretch for today’s audience. Still, anyone who did see Coming of Age will definitely want to see Odd Couple. The juxtaposition of the two plays will provide ample fuel for discussion—which is exactly what vibrant theater should do.
The Odd Couple by Neil Simon will be performed at the Tannery Arts Center’s Colligan Theater through May 27. A matinee show has been added on May 19. jeweltheatre.net.