Two's company

Village Players' Odd Couple revival is good, clean fun

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By DOUG DEUCHLER

The Odd Couple is so well known through numerous versions on stage, on film and in endless reruns of the TV sitcom, that images of this show are now permanently seared into our collective consciousness. Among their other challenges, Village Players actors Jack Crowe and Carl Occhipinti must dodge the ghosts of icons past, like Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. But despite the blizzard going on outside the theater last Friday night, the performances heated up immediately and never lost their steam.

Felix Unger and Oscar Madison are both insufferable and annoying characters yet Crowe and Occhipinti make these guys endearing. That's no easy feat.

Now celebrating its 40th birthday, Neil Simon's classic is brought to life at Village Players Theatre with perceptive direction by Edward Kerros and an ensemble cast of eight, highlighted by the two leads. When the comedy debuted on Broadway in 1965, Walter Matthau played Oscar and Art Carney was Felix. The play's durability is a testament to its tight construction, its lively wit, and the longevity of Felix and Oscar as pop culture heroes.

Broadway legend has it that playwright Simon's inspiration for the play was his brother Danny's true-life experience of rooming with a fellow divorced friend, to ease the financial pain of paying alimony. Both men quickly learned the same traits that infuriated their former spouses also annoyed one another.

When his wife of 12 years kicks him out, fussbudget Felix (Crowe) moves in with his deadpan poker buddy, Oscar (Occhipinti), a cigar-smoking, unrepentant slob whose marriage has also collapsed. If his messy Manhattan apartment strewn with shoes, dirty glasses, newspapers, wadded up clothing and cigar butts is any indication, it's no wonder Oscar's wife dumped him.

But for a brief while things go well for these guys who are just trying to get on with their lives after divorce. Oscar actually saves some money and is eating balanced, well-prepared meals. But who says opposites attract? The attitudes and lifestyles of Felix and Oscar ultimately clash big-time: Felix is finicky and uptight; irresponsible Oscar lives for the moment. Soon the classically mismatched roomies are driving one another crazy with their various idiosyncrasies.

Oscar lives like a college kid. To him, a floor is a place to toss things, from beer cans to dirty clothes. Felix, agonizingly neat, is always cleaning and straightening. He demands the use of coasters and linen napkins at a poker party. He's constantly spraying the apartment with aerosol disinfectant.

Felix prepares sandwiches with the crust cut off. Oscar serves sandwiches clamped under his armpit. Things go from bad to worse when Oscar tries to loosen up Felix by setting up a double-date with the giggly British Pigeon sisters who live in the building (Julie Hart and Helen Hoephner). Felix's grief over his divorce turns their potentially passionate evening with this pair of floozies into a wake.

Like any good sitcom, from Seinfeld to Will and Grace, much of the fun lies in the quirky characters who are the main characters' friends. Bill Brennan, Phil Gordon, Jim Keating, and Jim Scott are each credible as Felix and Oscar's married poker buddies. They add sparks and laughter, as do the Pigeon sisters upstairs.

Though there are eight performers in this production and each one shines, this is basically a two-man show. Crowe and Occhipinti's comic timing is impeccable.

Simon's play doesn't really show its age, although there are references to stuff like Dutch Cleanser, Look magazine, and a pricey bottle of wine that costs $6.25. Perhaps a couple of jokes are past their expiration date, but there's sarcasm aplenty that's still on-the-money funny. A plus is that director Kerros keeps his production lively and fast-paced.

Fastidious Felix's constant desire for cleanliness and order would perhaps now be diagnosed as an obsessive compulsive disorder. But what amazed me the most was how shockingly innocent all the dialogue is. It's fun but not the least bit risqué. We're so conditioned now to expect even a prime time "family sitcom" to include raunchy language and sexual innuendo. Here two middle-aged men share an apartment yet there's never a mention of homosexuality. Today the gay subtext would be addressed or at least denied?#34;"not that there's anything wrong with that."

Rob Pold, the set designer, has created a beige mid-'60s New York apartment. Christine Ferriter is the lighting designer. Julie Ballard, sound designer, includes a number of period perfect Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin hits on her pre-show and intermission soundtrack. Ian Medelsohn is the stage manager.

I usually attend opening night performances but due to a scheduling conflict I was unable to do so this time around. Graciously Village Players allowed me to attend the first preview?#34;a performance of the soon-to-open production that's undergoing intensive fine-tuning and tightening. The work is still coming together. Understandably, a reviewer is rarely welcome at this stage of the game. Yet I'm glad to report that at the initial preview I saw, two days before the scheduled opening, Village Players' production of The Odd Couple was slick and quite enjoyable.

 

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