Friday, July 18, 2014

The Odd Couple

So my review of Richmond Hill Players' current production of The Odd Couple got SERIOUSLY chopped down in the paper this week.  Here's the review as I had originally intended it:
Sometimes we reviewers have it easy.

The past few local theater productions I've been tasked with attending were all new plays to the area. Ergo, half of the review space had to be spent introducing readers to the production and giving a synopsis preview of the plot. While such an exposition is necessary with a new play in order to give a balanced review and entice folks to come to the show, half the time I found myself just wanting to shut up and say, "IT'S GOOD! TRUST ME! GO SEE IT!"

Thanks, then, to the Richmond Hill Players for throwing me a slow pitch down the middle with their faithfully executed production of Neil Simon's classic, "The Odd Couple." If you've made it this far in life without becoming familiar with Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, you may as well give up and return to the rock you've been living under all these years.

It's easily the most well-known play from America's most successful playwright. It's spawned a movie, a sequel, a TV series, a cartoon, ANOTHER TV series, a female version, and as we speak, "Friends" star Matthew Perry is developing a third take on the TV series coming to CBS this fall. Beyond that, nearly any show that's ever mined comedy gold from mismatched roommates has its roots wrapped around Oscar and Felix. Think about it: "Laverne & Shirley" is the female Odd Couple. Larry and Balki from "Perfect Strangers" are the Odd Cousins. You can even argue that Leonard, Penny, and Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" are an Odd trio.

"The Odd Couple" is a true comedic archetype. When his marriage crumbles, down-on-his-luck Felix has only one place to turn -- his friend and poker buddy Oscar. There's just one problem: Felix is a neat freak who lives an organized and meticulous life, while Oscar is a slob who flies by the seat of his pants and doesn't care that he only has green sandwiches from a busted fridge to serve his poker buddies. Their opposing approaches to life give us boths laughs and insight to the meaning of true friendship through thick and thin.

Don't get me wrong, though -- just because the play is well-known doesn't mean that it's easy to pull off. Without the right lead actors, the entire production could sink in a heartbeat. Through it all, both Oscar and Felix must remain wholly likeable in order for the comedy to work. If Felix is too much of a stuffed shirt or Oscar is too slovenly, you don't root for them. Above all, the actors have to somehow make the audience believe that these two polar opposites are capable of being friends.

QC theatre mainstay Greg Cripple brings a neurotic edge to Felix that propels the laughs while making you wonder if the poor guy's going to snap at any second. More successful is RHP President John VanDeWoestyne, who jumps into the role of Oscar Madison with playful gusto, genuine warmth, and flying linguini aplenty. Sometimes when you watch a play, you just KNOW when the actors relish their roles, and it's more than obvious that these two are in thespian heaven, even carrying the comic hijinks through to the curtain call.

I've seen umpteen versions of "The Odd Couple" over the years, but never before did I realize what a vital role the supporting cast plays. Oscar and Felix's poker buddies (played with enthusiasm and real character by Ray Rogers, Spiro Bruskas, Michael B. Miller, and Glenn Kluge) not only share a huge part of the stage time, they also have some of the best punchlines of the entire play. In the second act, Oscar and Felix go on a predictably disastrous double date with the dim-witted yet lovable Pigeon sisters, played here with comedic glee by Jackie Skiles and Jackie Patterson. Without their fantastic support, Oscar and Felix might just be two behaviorally-disordered weirdos who we'd pity rather than cheer.

Once again, with this production, the Richmond Hill Players prove that they're among the best in local theatre and well worth the quick drive to Geneseo. Director Mike Skiles makes great use of the space, which isn't the easiest task given that most of the "action" takes place around a poker table in a trash-strewn living room. I'd also like to call out the exceptional sound design by Jennifer Kingry. It's refreshing to go to a play where a phone rings and actually have it be an actual phone on stage actually ringing as opposed to a pre-recorded sound effect playing from a speaker hanging somewhere in the great beyond. The excellent set design and stage management makes it seem perfectly natural for Oscar's apartment to have surround seating for 165 strangers.    

It's risky to tamper with a classic -- that's why I await Perry's new TV version of "The Odd Couple" with more trepidation than excitement. That's also why I commend the Richmond Hill Players for presenting a enjoyable production that's true to the original and allows Neil Simon's timeless masterpiece to shine. In other words, it's good. Trust me. Go see it.

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