Thursday, December 06, 2012

Even Without Wendt, 'Odd Couple' Still Worth Going (Though Not Quite As Much) -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Odd Couple
a play by Neil Simon
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru December 16

When I initially noted that Northlight Theatre would be staging Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, I was excited to see it. This was primarily because it was slated to star George Wendt—TV’s beloved Norm from Cheers—as well as Saturday Night Live vet Tim Kazurinsky.

So I don’t feel it improper to admit that my interest was lessened when Wendt had to bow out after falling ill during rehearsals, for which he would require heart surgery. (Reports are that he is doing well.)

Although Wendt’s replacement as Oscar Madison, Marc Grapey, is a well-established Chicago theater actor who I’d seen in David Mamet’s Race early this year at Goodman Theatre, he’d likely be the first to admit that he doesn’t have Wendt’s star appeal.

And given that The Odd Couple feels rather ubiquitous—after bowing on Broadway in 1965, it became a successful movie and then sitcom—it almost seems essential that it be produced with notable stars as Oscar, the slob, and Felix Ungar, his neat freak roommate. The play most recently ran on Broadway in 2005-06, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick following up on their Producers success.

But even though the title seems like an old standby, the truth is that I had never seen The Odd Couple onstage, only long ago as a movie and perhaps just a couple of episodes of the TV show way back when. So while the conceit was familiar, I was rather oblivious to most of the play’s specifics (and also have seen only one other Neil Simon play, Lost in Yonkers).

So I am glad some good-to-excellent word-of-mouth and press reviews, plus the availability of a $20 rush ticket, convinced me to check it out. Especially for the bargain price I paid, Kazurinsky, Grapey and an entirely solid cast delivered an enjoyable interpretation of Simon’s humorous script, which though set in the mid-‘60s, still holds up well.

Though a few embers of recall flickered in my mind, I had largely forgotten how much of The Odd Couple revolves around poker games, with characters beyond Oscar and Felix providing a good number of laughs. A couple of the characterizations felt a bit too much like “stock participants in a weekly poker game, circa 1965” but Peter DeFaria (who took over for Grapey as Murray the Cop), William Dick (Vinnie), Phil Ridarelli (Speed ) and Bruce Jarchow (Roy) were suitably entertaining.

Given the circumstances, I compliment Grapey for handling the Oscar role adroitly, but can’t help but feel that Wendt would have made it a lot more fun. Historically, Oscar has been played by stars who bring oversized, overtly humorous personalities to the character—Matthau, Klugman, Lane, etc.—making (at least presumably) each exasperated outburst that much funnier.

Grapey does everything right as an actor, but just doesn’t have that innately humorous persona, even in comparison to Kazurinsky. So I imagine that without Wendt, the Oscar-Felix balance was somewhat reversed from the norm (no pun intended, but noted). Though I can perceive famed Felixes like Art Carney, Jack Lemmon and Tony Randall engendering many laughs from the script, I’m guessing the diminutive, squeaky-voiced Kazurinsky brought a somewhat unique tone to Felix, especially in the scenes with the Pigeon sisters.

Although they sounded to me like Americans doing British accents, Molly Glynn and Katherine Keberlein were a lot of fun as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon, sisters who live upstairs from Oscar and Felix in their Manhattan apartment.

Until my mind erodes the memory of this production, I am confident that it provided a stellar (re-)introduction to the merits and insights of one of the more popular pieces of late-mid-20th century entertainment. Two friends, recently or soon divorced, start living together only to find that they’re entirely mismatched. Hilarity and hurt feelings ensue, but in the end we’re to assume both are a bit better for the experience.

As am I for having seen it. Even without George, I’m glad I Wendt.

But next time, if there is one, I would want to see it with two stars who go well beyond the page to bring a bit more of themselves to the stage.

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