SOLANA BEACH — Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” — go ahead, try not to hum the theme song to the ‘70s sitcom of the same name — or think of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau bickering in the 1968 big screen adaptation, if you’re old enough, that is.
If you’re not, then the Broadway comedy of two divorced bachelors, one a lazy slob, the other a neurotic neat freak, sharing a New York apartment in the 1960s, will give viewers a look at a time when the “fellas” would sit around a poker table doing more complaining about their wives and their marriages than dealing cards, and referring to each other as “pussycats.”
It’s not that the play, written in 1965, doesn’t hold up as entertainment, or that there should be something of a social meaning to take away from it, but lines like, “Gee, what nice girls,” does make the production ring a touch old-fashioned at times.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre has brought the play back to the stage; it’s the first Neil Simon play to be performed under the now 10-season long tenure of Artistic Director David Ellenstein.
But there is no denying Simon’s gem of a comedy and Director Andrew Barnicle has been able to contain the action well in the confined space on stage while allowing the dialog to flow freely and without it becoming a series of tossed off one-liners after another.
In Oscar’s apartment, shirts and pairs of pants are strewn across furniture, (half the fun for Scenic Director Marty Burnett, must have been in making the mess), newspapers are scattered about the floor and coffee table half-hiding uneaten sandwiches next to ashtrays filled with cigarette and cigar butts (the play uses all-electronic smoking apparatuses that produce a vapor, not real smoke), and where beer cans and empty glasses seem more likely to be sat upon than cleaned up after.
During one of their regular Friday night poker games, Oscar (Matt Thompson) and his cadre of gamblers, Murray (Bernard X. Kopsho), Vinnie (Cris O’Bryon), Speed (John Nutten) and Roy (Albert Park) all start to speculate on the whereabouts of their missing sixth player Felix (Louis Lotorto).
Murray, a police officer, lets his mind wander, “Maybe he’s sick,” “Maybe he’s missing.”
As it turns out, they learn that Felix’s wife wants a divorce. “He’ll kill himself,” Murray exclaims. Kopsho gives the performance an enlivened sense of anxiety over that of the detached coolness Thompson gives to Oscar.
Felix has indeed threatened suicide, sending his wife, of all things, a “suicide telegram.”
When Felix stumbles into the apartment he’s wobbly and distraught. Here, Lotorto gives new meaning to the word tense that it seems the only thing that keeps him together at times are apron strings.
The group doesn’t know how to respond to Felix’s malaise; they tiptoe around him, careful not to let on they know about the impending divorce and suicide threat.
This is where some of the rompish fun begins. Afraid to let Felix go anywhere in the apartment alone, including the bathroom, they take precautionary measures by slamming shut the windows of the twelfth floor apartment, with all of it ending in a maddening chase throughout the rooms to keep him from leaving.
As the situation is calmed, Oscar and Felix agree to become roommates, and that is the end of the first act. It’s quick and lively.
At the onset of the second half, the apartment is spotless, maybe for the first time since Oscar’s divorce. But the cleanliness isn’t without its price. Felix’s compulsions drive the poker games apart and the tension between the roommates begins to elevate.
Before long the slovenly, quick-tempered Oscar explodes into a ferocious mood.
Thompson has no problem going from consoling to boiling over with a ferociousness, especially when hurtling a plate of spaghetti (excuse me, linguine) across the stage.
Whichever odd couple you’re accustomed to, check out this pairing, they’re fun to watch.