Big Dawg Productions is selling out the first show of their 2016 season: Neil Simon’s perennial favorite, “The Odd Couple,” directed by Katherine Vernon. The show premiered in 1965 and garnered Simon his first Tony Award. It has been entertaining people ever since with a highly successful film version staring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and a spinoff TV show on CBS. (A little bit of trivia for WIlmingotnians: Former resident actor Pat Hingle replaced Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison in the original Broadway run of “The Odd Couple.”)
The show opens with the weekly poker game and Oscar Madison’s (Woody Stefl) apartment. Speed (Jamey Stone) chomps his cigar and tries to move the game forward, while Murray (Jon Wallin) shuffles and reshuffles the deck. Vinnie (Joel Zucker) can’t stop mentioning he is leaving for vacation in the morning and Roy (Charles Calhoun) tries to keep the peace while noting no one has seen or heard from the sixth member of their game: Felix Unger (Fracaswell Hyman). Stefl’s Madison is unconcerned about his slovenly life: It is to be expected in a recently divorced man. He’s a sports writer, after all, not a surgeon. If you want a sandwich not covered in mold, then go down to the deli and grab one.
Frankly, Madison is my kind of host. Stefl’s rendition isn’t trying to recreate Walter Matthau (because who could?) but craft a well-meaning, very guy’s guy—a kind of friend who might surf, and definitely gambles and drinks beer. After much concern and fan-fare, Felix appears. He previously sent his soon-to-be-ex-wife a telegram to announce his imminent demise. Madison, a soft touch at heart, asks Felix to move in with him. Hyman has gone in a completely different direction than Jack Lemmon or Art Carney with Felix, the most famous obsessive compulsive in American theatre. Hyman’s Felix isn’t wound tight or set in his ways so much as a self-sabotaging control freak. For all the Valium that runs in Stefl’s veins, Hyman retaliates with high-pitch whining, expressive eye rolls and an assortment of physical comedy that all aims at getting his way without giving way. His surprise when Madison finally breaks is really shocking: To him it was almost a game.
Of course, for all of Felix’s desire for routine and control, Madison would much rather dine with and enjoy the company of someone of the female persuasion. Enter “the birds”: Gwendolyn (Amanda Young) and Cecily (Jamie Harwood) Pigeon. Though they flutter about and are clearly having far too much fun, their connection with Felix is quite touching—much more so than their flirtation with Madison. But it is baffling for the poker game. How did any of this happen? Both Harwood and Young are quite beautiful, and they remarkably favor each other enough to make the sibling conceit believable. They do manage to hold their own in a pretty male heavy show; they handle the attention with aplomb and the manipulative skills of born flirts.
For all the focus on Oscar and Felix, the poker buddies are wonderfully entertaining. I would go back to see the show again just to watch their banter and responses to the crises Felix produces for them moment to moment. Wallin’s Murray as the much harried cop gets in my second favorite line of the show when he advises Madison to take Felix’s belt and shoe laces away from him. In Vinnie we have a nervous but well-meaning and sweet-hearted man who doesn’t quite fit in with the world. In Calhoun’s Roy a funny but dependable accountant meets his match with Stone’s frustrated Speed: Why can’t anyone concentrate on the game? I am inclined to agree, why can’t we just get on with it? But, no, human peculiarities are not to be rushed. These guys have fun together and it makes the audience have fun.
Dallas LaFon designed and built a really lovely set with stairs to the apartment door, working windows for Felix to threaten to jump, from green faux painted walls to a parquet floor in the hallway. It gives a nice nod to Riverside Drive apartments of the 1960s in New York. Shawn Sproatt’s costuming, especially of Madison in a hole-y sock and stained shirt, really drives home the details.
Neil Simon remains one of the most performed playwrights in America. What is it about his work, and “The Odd Couple,” in particular, that speaks to so many people? Felix and Oscar can easily turn into caricatures rather than characters on a journey together. But there is something relatable about creating bonds with those we care for deeply who still manage to irritate us incredibly. We each have elements of Felix and elements of Oscar. Stefl and Hyman do a wonderful job of showing us the two men in crises reaching out in a bizarre cry for help. That cry for help is so tough; what’s even harder is accepting the help when it is offered.
Simon captures a painful, frightening, insanely funny dynamic of human relationships beautifully. Perhaps we continue to come back to “The Odd Couple” for that reason: We can identify so much with the characters, yet we get to laugh at our own foibles.
Simon is a dependably funny writer. Big Dawg’s show is a fun and wonderful evening out, guaranteed to meet expectation with big belly laughs.