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PLAYING IT SAFE: Dearly departed Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’ may just be outdated

Some staple productions are past their expiration date, but for a night out with a traditional take on an old classic, the Cube Theatre scores with “The Odd Couple.”

Arts

Last weekend Cube Theatre opened their production of Neil Simon’s pseudo-classic “The Odd Couple,” directed by Judy Greenhut at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater. Even though the production has some well-crafted elements, on a whole, it reeks of an outdated and tried script that falls on the name of its popular authorship to hopefully pull in audiences.

Neil Simon is synonymous with theatre.  It’s understandable why the play finds itself on a constant loop; Simon wrote over 30 plays spanning five decades, from the early ‘60s to the early 2000s—and that’s not even mentioning his extensive works in television and on the silver screen. In that time, he all but perfected the structure for the imperfect, unheroic figure who, at its core, is a decent human-being thrown into the deep-end of life by some hair-brained or mad-capped situation of the mundane. More often than not, it struck gold on stage.

That being said, in the world of community theatre, it feels impossible to go through a single theatrical season without seeing at least three or four productions from the “Bard of the 20th Century.” From a business standpoint, it makes sense to stage Neil Simon shows, and I am certainly not knocking the practice, just shining a light on it. Simply, being able to advertise his name on a marquee brings a certain level of prestige and profitability. Sadly, a grand sense of predictability accompanies it as well.

“The Odd Couple” has a paint-by-numbers plot: Slob Oscar (Jon Stafford) is a divorced sports writer living the happy yet dirty life of bachelorhood when his best buddy and neurotic clean freak, Felix (Tony Rivenbark), is kicked out of his home by a soon-to-be ex-wife who is over her gaslighting husband. Felix, being the emotional manipulator he is, threatens suicide until begrudgingly Oscar invites Felix to stay with him. Over the course of the three-act play, the audience witnesses a recap of the behavior, which got Felix in this predicament in the first place.

While the show is a well put-together machine, with a talented cast and nicely detailed, if not confusing set design, it’s still somewhat boring. The pace is all over the place, trapped in an uncomfortable stop-and-start motion. Stafford continuously tries to kickstart it into the next gear, but right when it’s about to break orbit, it crashes back down, due to the weight of another painfully outdated joke.

While Oscar and Felix are meant to be polar opposites, they should at least come off as friends. Stafford and Rivenbark create archetype characters, which are fun to watch, sure, but both seem to be in business for themselves onstage. It’s not a friendship that has reached its boiling point, but more just an angry guy living with an obliviously annoying stranger forced upon him. In fact, it’s more like “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles,” come to think of it.

Stafford, who is always a powerhouse on stage, is controlling to the point of domineering. It’s what is called for with the Oscar role, and he fills up the stage all by himself, like a bull in a china shop. We see how a wife and kids wouldn’t fit into his life before they were gone, and we also see why a wife would pick up the kids and take off from this human equivalent of Oscar the Grouch. (For those interested, I researched, and, no, even though the play premiered in 1965 and Oscar the Grouch first appeared on “Sesame Street” in 1969, the short-tempered, sloppy trash monster is not named after the short-tempered, sloppy Oscar Madison!)

On the other side of the coin, there is Felix the hypochondriac who can’t seem to take a step without breaking, spraining or contracting something that will be the death of him.

Rivenbark does bring an endearment to the wailing pipsqueak. Yet, in the same breath, there’s just something sinister about Rivenbark’s Felix. He knows everything he does is an over-exaggerated cry for sympathy; his friends and wife are clearly in the know, but still he plays the victim … and plays the victim … and plays the victim.

Both leads are professionals and own their slice of the stage when they are on it. I just wish they had congealed better with the other’s energy. Their strongest moment together is one shared completely in silence and speaks for itself.

The show is mainly a boy’s club but two British birds do fly in to break up the one-sided gender pie chart: Cecily (Denise Bass) and Gwendolyn (Cindy Carlucci) Pigeon. While the two have very limited stage time, the audience can be damn sure they use all of it exceptionally well to create a cheeky banter whenever someone drops an innuendo. Also, I enjoy the subtle reference to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” with their names. Not sure if it was Simon’s intention, but either way it’s a neat reference (and useless trivia) to the name Oscar.

Making up the rest of the motley crew of poker players, who can’t seem to play even one full hand of cards, is Randy Davis, Rick Deike, Cole Marquis and Eric Robinson. Each brings charm to their roles of buddies on the outside looking in at Oscar and Felix’s so-called bachelor bliss. Randy Davis stands out with his skilled use of facial expressions that would rival the stars of the silent film era.

When entering the theater, the audience is confronted by putrid pea-soup-colored walls I believe would pass as “hip” in a 1965 setting. The set is well-constructed by Robin Dale Robinson and plays with angles very nicely. It’s engaging to the eye from the onset until the final bows—even if it does seem too magical to fit five rooms off to the side. Paired with the décor, selected by Shane Fernando, the apartment’s set carries a much lived-in air. Detailed to the nine, my eyes darted about for all the small touches.

The works of Neil Simon are a cornerstone to the world of theatre, much like William Shakespeare or Author Miller. Simon’s work will forever be staged. Like the works of David Mamet, not all of it will age well. In fact, some are past their expiration date, but for a night out with a traditional take on an old classic, the Cube Theatre scores with “The Odd Couple.”

Details:
The Odd Couple
Feb. 14-16, 7:30 p.m.;
Feb. 17, 3 p.m.; Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 21-23, 7:30 p.m.;
Feb. 22, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $28 • thalianhall.org

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