It’s not just Oscar and Felix who are adjusting to a new situation.
The production of Neil Simon’s warhorse “The Odd Couple” that begins performances Monday at the Cape Playhouse is also a harbinger of change at that venerable venue in Dennis.
Tony Award-winner Michael McGrath (for 2012’s “Nice Work if You Can Get It”) plays slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison, and Noah Racey is his neat-freak friend, Felix Ungar, who moves in with him and turns his life upside down. Their comic clashes kick off the Playhouse’s 88th summer season, its first under the leadership of producer Mark Cuddy.
For 19 years, Cuddy has been the artistic director of the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., where the same production of “The Odd Couple,” directed by John Miller-Stephany, played for four weeks in April and May. Now Cuddy — who also bears the title of chief executive of the nonprofit Cape Cod Center for the Arts, the umbrella institution at the Playhouse campus — is charged with reshaping the theater’s future.
“The task for us is to set a repertory much like this summer, that is a blend of plays and some musicals, and really recapture the kind of dramatic legacy that was established for almost eight decades,” says Cuddy.
Besides “The Odd Couple,” that means the recent drama “Freud’s Last Session,” the musicals “1776” and “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” the comedy “Perfect Wedding,” and the whimsical “Almost, Maine.” Except for “1776,” they’re all remounts of Geva shows from the last couple of years, with the same directors — including Cuddy himself for “Pump Boys” — and some of the same actors.
“The last thing I wanted to do in this first year was worry about the artistic quality of the six shows. I had to come in with sort of great confidence about that,” Cuddy says. Now he can focus instead on matters like
institutional strategy and community outreach for the Playhouse, which in some areas “needed to be dragged into the 21st century.”
‘The task for us is to . . . recapture the kind of dramatic legacy that was established for almost eight decades.’
How much overlap there is with the Geva schedule in the future is yet to be determined, he says, but Playhouse fans should expect the mix to be similar.
“For almost 80 years, [the Playhouse] did the occasional musical, but not predominantly. And it drifted in the last few years toward musicals because ‘Oh, a lot of people will come,’ ” Cuddy says. “But you know what? That’s just painting yourself in a corner. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and a variety of repertory is always better, like an investment portfolio.”
Center for the Arts board president Richard B. Hawes Jr. is firmly focused on the future.
“We’re looking forward to continuing to enhance our reputation on the national scene as a summer stock theater that offers high-quality productions,” says Hawes. “This [season] provides a wider variety of what we can offer the general public, and I think that’s going to resonate well.”
The Cape Playhouse quickly became one of the hot spots nationally in summer theater after its founding by Raymond Moore in 1927. Its first production was “The Guardsman,” starring Basil Rathbone. Bette Davis worked as an usher before she made it onto the stage. Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, Humphrey Bogart, and Helen Hayes all trod the boards here, and in 1956, young Jane Fonda took a small part in a show starring her father, Henry.
The old summer stock circuit has largely disappeared, though. Under producing artistic director Evans Haile, who departed last year after more than a decade on the job, the Playhouse had concentrated on dependable musicals. Cuddy says that can turn into a treadmill: “You can still do fabulous productions of musicals, and I love musicals, but it really limits you.”
Cuddy is a Dorchester native, a graduate of Boston Latin School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He and his wife bought a second home in East Dennis three years ago. A chance conversation with Hawes at a local coffee shop led to him giving a three-hour workshop for the board in August on the state of the theater business nationally and the Playhouse’s place in it. By November, he’d been hired.
The Geva, he says, is the largest producing theater in that state outside New York City, with a yearly attendance around 150,000, more than 10,000 subscribers, and an annual budget of $7 million. The Playhouse attracted an audience of between 25,000 and 30,000 last year with a budget of $1.7 million. The Geva has two houses with 525 and 180 seats, while the Playhouse holds about 580.
Joining Cuddy at the Playhouse, general manager Joseph Guglielmo arrives from ArtsEmerson, where he was director of audience services.
It’s 450 miles from Rochester to Dennis. Cuddy says that he can envision leaving Geva Theatre to be full time on the Cape, but not for several years. For now, he’s focused on getting off to a good start with “The Odd Couple.”
Over the next year, getting McGrath for a two-week run at the Cape Playhouse may come to look like more of a coup than it already does. For a year or so, he’s been attached to a “Honeymooners” musical project to play Ralph Kramden opposite Hank Azaria as Ed Norton. He expects that to move to a workshop in the fall and, he hopes, hit Broadway in 2015.
“I think people forget just how great a writer Neil Simon is,” says McGrath, a Worcester native who will be staying at a family home in West Yarmouth. “And I think with every different production, you get someone who’s gonna keep those characters alive.”
Perhaps because “The Odd Couple” has been seen in numerous iterations over the years, including the famed movie and TV versions, it needs no updating from 1965, McGrath says.
“It’s a classic play that lives perfectly in its own time,” he says. “We did a matinee for high school kids when we were up in Rochester. There were snickers about some prices, like $1.50-an-hour for a maid to clean up your apartment, but they got all of the jokes.”