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The Cary Players Community Theatre Company opened Neil Simon’s classic The Odd Couple on Friday at the Cary Arts Center. Making its Broadway debut in 1965, the story centers around one of the simplest, oldest themes in theatre: getting along with a roommate. These roommates share the bond of failed marriages, and after worrying that Felix will kill himself, Oscar offers to let him stay in his apartment. They soon find that although they have been friends for a long time, living together is nearly impossible because Felix is a neat-freak and Oscar is a slob. After the success of the original male version, the 1968 film version, and even a popular TV series, Simon reworked the play, now set in the ‘80s and starring women.
Interestingly, Cary Players is presenting Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple in rotating repertory with the 1985 female version, centering on Florence and Olive in place of Felix and Oscar. The story is universal – who hasn’t faced differences with a roommate, no matter how good of a friend he or she is? It highlights the difference between sloppy and tidy, flirtatious and shy, sardonic and neurotic.
Opening night began with the female version, starring Amy Bossi-Nasiatka as Olive Madison and Page Purgar as Florence Unger. Nasiatka was necessarily dry and sarcastic, capturing the down-to-earth Brooklynite’s cynical wit. Supporting girlfriends Mickey, Sylvie, Vera, and Renee were bawdy and full of gossip over their Trivial Pursuit game that is an escape from child-rearing, husband-feeding, or dating.
The feminist undertones are frequent but subtle: Florence is deemed missing after cancelling her pedicure and facial and constantly must worry about getting back to work after separating from her husband, whereas Felix is missing from work and worries that his wife will not be able to take care of the children without him. Mickey, played by Sandi Sullivan, was bawdy and larger-than-life, but as a police officer she wore her full uniform in every scene. Murray, the police officer counterpart in the male version, played by Tracy Fulghum, stripped down to his uniform T-shirt and stooped to near-effeminate levels later in the play when complimenting Felix’s cooking. The ending of the female version (no spoilers) is less satisfying than the male version, although I found the female version more humorous overall; whether that is because of the slight differences in scripts or differences in the ways women and men settle their differences is up to each audience member to decide for him – or her – self.
The set, designed by Tina Vance, was a stylish ‘80s apartment littered with empty pop cans, dirty clothes, and bills. It is wonderfully functional, and customized and decorated differently for the separate casts. Olive’s apartment was littered with Lay’s chip bags, a brassiere hanging from a lamp, and Coke bottles; Oscar’s apartment had a guitar, a record player, cigar stubs, and pizza boxes.
Director Lyman Collins, who directed the female version of the play, writes in the program about the rotating repertory, “While this has been billed as a ‘battle of the sexes’ which implies a winner and a loser, there are only winners here as audience members get the rare chance to see how the same situation can be played out when the sexes are reversed. The cast members are winners, too.” This was certainly true. The female version of The Odd Couple was sardonic and clever, although at times a little slow. Line delivery during confrontations lagged, though Nasiatka’s asides and jokes were timed impeccably.
The most entertaining scene by far in the female version was the climactic dinner scene with the Costazuela brothers, Manolo and Jesus, played by the hilarious Steve Whetzel and Gus Allen, respectively. They and Purgar presented a wonderful scene full of language barriers and verbal sparring that left the audience in stitches long after Whetzel and Allen left the stage, and applauding their return.
The male version of the play opened the following night, starring Sean Brosnahan as Felix and Bill LaFrankie as Oscar. Instead of opening with a vulgar but still relatively tame Trivial Pursuit game, the male version opens with a poker game in a hazy apartment while the men smoke cigars and speak more tamely, but aggressively, calling each other “dumb,” “fat,” and “sloppy.” Gus Allen, who played Jesus Costazuela the night before, appeared as Roy in the male version of the play, and did a considerably good job tackling two different scripts. A tip of the hat should also go to Tim Wiest, who played Vinnie, for his homage to John Fiedler’s Vinnie from the film (Fiedler is perhaps more popularly remembered to younger audiences for voicing Piglet from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films).
Brosnahan, juxtaposed against LaFrankie’s paragon of ‘60s manliness, was a hilarious Felix. His encounter with the Pidgeon sisters, played by Rebecca Leonard and Jeanine Denning, was more awkward than funny, though enjoyable. Leonard and Denning were cheerful and airy, laughing just like birds, reflecting the stylized, flirtatious women of the ‘60s. Brosnahan also did a great job delivering lines through a cough, no doubt caused by this weekend’s sudden drop of pollen.
LaFrankie also harkened back to the popular Walter Matthau’s version of Oscar from the film, though his interpretation was much goofier and louder than either Matthau’s or Nasiatka’s interpretations. The male version presented much more opportunity for physical comedy, blocked and timed beautifully. The only piece of physical comedy the male version noticeably omitted was Felix’s throwing of the cup to show his anger (although this lessened the time between Acts II and III because the crew did not have to vacuum up the shattered sugar glass as they did in the female version the previous night).
Both plays were delightful and hilarious, and it is possible to go on into a lengthy essay describing the differences between the versions in script writing, direction, as well as acting, and their implications, but in short, bravo and brava to both directors, casts, and crews for two great retellings of a classic story we can all take away from.
The Odd Couple (Both Versions) in rotating repertory continues through Sunday, April 13. For more details on this production, including the performance times of the male and female versions, please view the sidebar.