Prolific comic American playwright Neil Simon has written more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of screenplays, has received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer, and was awarded many of the most sought-after literary awards, including the Pulitzer.
His work is beloved and widely produced, firmly rooted in the particular moments in time about which he wrote — most notably the 1960s and 1970s — and enormously popular among the demographic of theater goers, the majority of whom shared their heyday with Simon.
“The Odd Couple” is perhaps Simon’s most popular and widely produced play, adapted for both film and television several times since its two-year run on Broadway in the 1960s. The story of two recently divorced buddies by now is quite familiar: Oscar Madison, a successful sportswriter and terrible slob, becomes roommates with tightly-wound neat nick and emotional wreck Felix Unger, described by Oscar as “the only man in the world with clenched hair” who “wears a seat belt to a drive-in movie.” They drive each other nuts and yet improve each other’s lives, and their personality differences and behaviors create the tension and comedy in two acts that take place entirely inside their New York City apartment.
It’s a show one would expect Hope Summer Repertory to produce, and to do it well, just as one expects each line and each joke in the script. It’s comfortable and familiar, and it makes us laugh without thinking too hard if at all. It challenges nothing at this point, and though it does reflect a sort of American crisis of masculinity 50 years ago, it’s not terribly relevant today.
However, Oscar Madison is a role longtime HSRT resident Equity actor Chip Duford was born to play, as Director Jahanna Beecham notes in the playbill, and the opening night audience showed its appreciation for his masterful portrayal of the iconic character and the excellent production overall that highlights the amusing elements of the characters, the writing, the era, and its style with big guffaws and a standing ovation.
With just eight characters in two acts, every performance must be sharp, and this particular ensemble is tight. Great timing, pacing, and stage pictures as well as delightful physical comedy all lend themselves to laughter from the predictable script. From scenes of buddies playing poker (Kevin Beebee, Glen Forbes, Eric Robinson, Brandon A. Wright) to a silent passive-aggressive scene between Oscar and Felix (Michael J Barnes) to a makeshift double date with the British “Pigeon Sisters” (Devri Chism and Kristin Conrad) who live upstairs, the stage is full and fun to watch with clever blocking and each actor fully bringing a distinct character wonderfully responsive to the others on stage.
In this production, there’s not so much innovation as playing it to the hilt the way it was written, and the technical choices, too, evoke the mid-1960s — from Olivia Trees’ costumes to Joseph P. Flauto’s set and props to the zippy, kooky instrumental interludes from Sound Designer Josh Schmidt. It all plays up the light-hearted early TV sitcom feel.
By and large, “The Odd Couple” is a crowd pleaser that fills seats even though to some of us its time has passed. Regardless, HSRT’s production is undeniably excellent, and sure to make its grateful audiences laugh out loud.
The Odd Couple
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
June 29-July 18