For my family, director Gene Saks' fabulous 1968 film version of Neil Simon's hit Broadway comedy, The Odd Couple, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, was a milestone movie. It was the first "grown-up" film that my parents and I attended together as adults. Not being theatergoers, not even knowing that playwright Neil Simon was considered Broadway's king of comedy, they found the movie's title off-putting, and they were reluctant to go to see a film about two divorced men, an insufferable neatnik named Felix Unger (Lemmon) and a hopeless slob named Oscar Madison (Matthau), who set up housekeeping and immediately start getting on each other's nerves like, well, a prickly wife and a peevish husband in a deteriorating marriage.
To get them to go, I finally had to promise that we would drive to the Cardinal Theatre in separate cars, they could leave at any time, and I would pay for their tickets if they left. They stayed, of course. It was the first time that I saw my dad laugh so hard and so long that tears rolled down his cheeks. He delighted in repeating lines from The Odd Couple for years afterwards.
Thanks to the 1968 movie and the subsequent hit television series, which starred Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar, almost everyone knows that Oscar serves his poker buddies brown sandwiches and green sandwiches made with either very old meat or very new cheese. The Odd Couple has become part of the culture.
So, the Bull City Players' production of The Odd Couple, which opens tonight and plays through April 27 in the Durham Arts Council Building, has a built-in audience.
"Like most people in America, I grew up watching 'The Odd Couple' on television long before I was old enough to read the play," says director Anthony Caporale. "When I finally did read the script in my teens, it was like a reunion with old friends. Although this is the first time I have directed 'The Odd Couple,' I feel that my relationship with the characters has lasted nearly my entire life."
Caporale adds, "Being from New York, I love the way Neil Simon captures the way people in that region speak. His choice of phrases, use of slang, and deep understanding of how culture is reflected in humor make his characters so familiar that one can almost remember meeting them at some time in the past. Bringing a classic like The Odd Couple to the stage allows me to share that unique experience with the audience.
"The play opens," Caporale continues, "with Murray (Chris Ayers), Speed (Steve Scott), Roy (Al Singer), Vinnie (Warren Lieuallen), and Oscar Madison (David Berberian) playing poker in Oscar's apartment. We quickly learn two key facts that set the action of the play in motion: Oscar is recently divorced and living alone, and the group's sixth regular poker player, Felix Ungar (Jack Prather), is missing from that night's game. It soon develops that Felix has split up with his wife the night before and nobody has seen him since. Felix arrives late at the game, dejected and depressed, and after a comic romp of sympathy-getting antics agrees to move in with Oscar, who can't stand living alone.
"In the second act," Caporale says, "we find that Oscar and Felix are as incompatible with each other as they were with their wives. Felix's compulsive neatness and attention to detail is driving the happily sloppy and carefree Oscar crazy, not to mention putting a serious crimp in the weekly poker game. In an effort to find some common ground — namely, women — the two set up a double date with their upstairs neighbors, the also-divorced Pigeon sisters (Jeaneal Guy as Gwendolyn and Jennifer Wichman as Cecily). When the ladies arrive, Felix launches into a depressed remembrance of his life with his children and soon-to-be-ex-wife. This brings up memories in the Pigeon sisters of their ex-husbands, and the evening deteriorates into a crying shambles."
Caporale adds, "Enraged by the failure of the previous evening's date, ... Oscar at his wit's end [when Act III opens]. He and Felix finally have it out, and Oscar kicks Felix out of the apartment. Oscar is quickly consumed by guilt over where his friend will go, until the Pigeon sisters arrive at the apartment with Felix in tow looking for the rest of Felix's things so that he can move in with them. Seeing that everything will be all right and ready to move into the next phase of their lives, Oscar and Felix patch things up and look forward to continuing the weekly poker game."
Set designer Jim Nuss, lighting designer Robert Stromberg, costume designer Grace Smiley, sound designer Al Singer, and Chanell Howard (hair/makeup) will have their hands full recreating the interiors of several rooms in Oscar's eight-room upper West Side apartment; but director Anthony Caporale says, "The biggest challenge in doing a Neil Simon play is coming up with a fresh approach that still remains true to the author's intentions. This production puts a great deal of emphasis on characters that are developed through familiar emotions and human interactions rather than stylistic deliveries or dated reactions. We hope that they will be as recognizable to today's audiences as they would be to theatergoers in the mid-1960s."
Caporale adds, "This is a great show for the whole family! Please note that actors will be smoking during the performance."
The Bull City Players present The Odd Couple Friday-Saturday, April 18-19 and 25-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 20 and 27, at 3 p.m. in the People's Security Insurance Theatre (upper level), Durham Arts Council Building, 120 Morris St., Durham, North Carolina. $12.00 evenings and $10 matinees. 919/490-8603. http://www.bullcityplayers.org/.