Odd and Odder

Why revive The Odd Couple? It's no wonder that Playhouse 1960 can't provide a satisfactory answer to this question -- even Neil Simon couldn't solve this problem when, in 1985, he undertook a Broadway comeback for his signature piece of 20 years earlier. Not only do you have to contend with the hit 1968 movie version the play spawned, you also have to deal with the hugely successful TV show of the '70s. Forging any theatrical identity out of this warhorse is damn near impossible.

So what do you do? If you're Simon, you turn things inside out: his revival transformed sloppy Oscar into sloppy Olive and neat Felix into neat Florence. If you're Playhouse 1960, you present both versions alternately: one weekend the male slob and fussbudget play themselves out, the next weekend the female incarnations take the stage. Playhouse 1960 could have been onto something here. Presenting the different takes back-to-back might offer humorous commentary about the sexes, about a generation, about Simon.

Would a director, for instance, stage similar gags the same way? Does the later text comment on the earlier? What would happen if Oscar and Felix's neighbors, the very flitty, very available Pidgeon sisters, were played by the same actresses who, the next week, play Olive and Florence? Or if the actors cast as Oscar and Felix pulled double duty as the male versions of picture postcard dates, the very Latin, very suave Costazuela brothers? Apparently no such intriguing ideas crossed the minds of those at Playhouse 1960. The productions have nothing to do with each other whatsoever. Each has its own director and cast; a set is about all that's shared. In fact, Playhouse 1960's "concept" smacks of being nothing more than a gimmick: you pay full price for each production.

And neither is really worth it. In the male version, though many of the witty one-liners Simon is famous for still hold up -- Oscar offers brown sandwiches and green sandwiches to his poker buddies, explaining they're either "very new cheese or very old meat"; Felix is "the only man in the world with clenched hair" -- the text is essentially one-note, and director Robert Faber seems satisfied to play it over and over, exactly the same way. There's a sense of complacence about his direction, as if he's letting Simon do all the work. He even deprives us of a key sight gag: when the curtain rises in Act 1, Oscar's bachelor pad isn't all that much of a pig sty; thus, when the curtain rises in Act 2 after Felix has moved in, the transformation isn't terribly miraculous, because about all he's done is throw out a couple of potato chip bags and straightened a few pictures. And when Faber does try for visual humor, it sometimes doesn't make any sense: one of the poker pals has an Afro out to here and wears bell-bottoms and platform shoes, while the others dress for the '90s.

This anachronistic poker player isn't the only African-American in the cast: Oscar is also played by a black actor, Maurice Lottie. All the others are white. Since Simon's words don't reflect the issue of race, the color line casting feels un-thought out. In any case, Lottie settles into a minor impersonation of Jack Klugman, while Paul Linden's Felix has an air of the endearing neuroses of Jack Lemmon. They're comfortable -- if derivative -- together.

The female version offers less pleasure, in no small part due to Simon. While some of the successful scenes are transplanted verbatim -- "They could be vitamins," Oscar/Olive says about the bottle of pills Felix/Florence took, "S/he could be the healthiest one in the room!" -- and while some are neatly inverted -- Felix isn't "the swinger type" because "he wears a vest and galoshes" while Florence would never "fool around" because "she wouldn't even take off her clothes when she had her children" -- Simon simply couldn't make his men into believable women.

Instead of playing poker, the women gather for Trivial Pursuit: it's funny when one of the poker players bets the coaster Felix gives him, thinking it a chip, but it's strained when one of the Trivial Pursuiters thinks the coaster Florence gives her is a large chocolate mint. Oscar pleads with Felix to "spend one night talking with someone with higher voices than us," while Olive wishes for "an evening where women are fighting for their honor -- and making damn sure we lose." Simon's sensibility here is too male. And when Oscar finally throws Felix out by packing his suitcase with pots and pans, much of the humor comes from sex-role socialization; when Olive does exactly the same with Florence, the gesture lacks a dimension.

So does B.A. Vance as Olive. In an overly physical performance, Vance does one too many double takes, stamps her feet a lot and yammers. She has the mannerisms of a slob but not the humanizing appeal. As Florence, Yissel Posada risks more than Vance, but fails more; going for broke, Posada's Florence is a nervous hysteric, all exaggerated tics and high-strung giggles. She's way too broad. Energy appears the guiding force for both performers.

Director Mindy Sutherland tries to enliven things by creating a phallic sight gag that works but others, such as one where Florence cleans up with tongs, go overboard. Sutherland is more successful with the Act 2 set transformation than is Faber, but she fails by letting her cast get away with too many excesses, including fuzzy New York accents.

Interestingly, being served a double dose of similar Simon does the playwright more disservice than service. For while no one can zip zingers like he can, Simon here feels uneasily dated, the onslaught of jokes frequently revealing undercurrents of sexism and homophobia. And the back-to-back performances reveal how rickety the play's structure actually is. It takes Oscar/Olive about 15 minutes to go into the kitchen to make drinks for the odd couple's dates, and while Simon says the reason is that the character is having trouble making crushed ice, we know that the real reasons is that Simon couldn't figure out another way to give Felix/Florence the necessary time to ruin the evening with talk of the woes of divorce, which is the immediate precursor to Felix/Florence being thrown out.

Playhouse 1960 doesn't begin to deal with these issues, nor with what to do with noticeably amateur supporting casts. Its sole attempt at dramaturgy is distributing pink playbills that unfold and blue ones that open up. This is way too easy, even for Neil Simon at community theater.

The Odd Couple plays through February 25 (male cast) and March 4 (female cast) at Playhouse 1960, 6814 Gant Road, 587-8243.

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