DENNIS – It’s hard but not impossible to make Neil Simon’s 1960s comedies feel fresh. Director Jessica Stone pulled it off in grand style a couple of years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival, generating an atmosphere of pell-mell energy in a staging of Simon’s 1969 “Last of the Red Hot Lovers’’ that starred Brooks Ashmanskas.
But the Cape Playhouse’s by-the-numbers production of Simon’s 1965 “The Odd Couple,’’ directed by John Miller-Stephany, does not transcend the play’s formulaic sitcom rigging, despite solid performances by Michael McGrath as slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison and Noah Racey as finicky network newswriter Felix Ungar.
Part of the problem with any production of “The Odd Couple,’’ of course, is the almost numbing familiarity of the material. Very few, if any, American plays are as thoroughly marbled into our cultural consciousness as this comedy of mismatched fortysomething roommates.
After premiering on Broadway with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, “The Odd Couple’’ was adapted into a film in 1968, starring Matthau and Jack Lemmon. In 1970 it was turned into a TV series, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, that ran for five years before entering the eternal afterlife known as reruns. Simon wrote a female version starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers that ran on Broadway in the mid-1980s, and the play was revived again on Broadway in 2005, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
In other words, a new staging of “The Odd Couple’’ ought to provide a compelling rationale for its existence. The Cape Playhouse production — the first under the leadership of producer Mark Cuddy — doesn’t.
That’s not to say there aren’t laughs in this “Odd Couple.’’ There are. While Simon’s setup-joke, setup-joke structure telegraphs what’s coming even if you’ve somehow never seen the play, his well-crafted one-liners sometimes land effectively. He remains the laureate of middle-aged male angst.
Indeed, just as traces of a society in flux can be detected in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,’’ where would-be adulterer Barney frets that the sexual revolution is passing him by, “The Odd Couple’’ offers a sidelong glimpse at the way divorce was rising in the mid-1960s (it would double in the decade following the play’s premiere). Oscar is recently divorced and at one point talks to his 5-year-old son in California. Felix is separated and apparently heading for divorce. And both of the Pigeon sisters, who materialize as potential love interests for Oscar and Felix, are divorced (though in the case of one sister, her husband died while she was divorcing him).
As the play begins, it’s a sweltering summer night in 1965, and Felix’s friends are fretting because he has not shown up for their regular poker game in Oscar’s apartment on New York’s Riverside Drive. It is, by the way, an eight-room apartment in the Upper Eighties. On a sportswriter’s salary. It is to weep.
Turns out Felix is distraught because his wife threw him out. And it turns out she had good reason, because he’s impossible to live with, as Oscar soon discovers when he invites Felix to move in. Felix’s numberless quirks include making a high-pitched noise to clear his sinuses, obsessively vacuuming every speck of dust in the apartment, and retreating into a huffy, spouse-like silence when Oscar is late for dinner.
Even granting that the entire premise of “The Odd Couple’’ is that Oscar and Felix are radically different, there’s little in the rapport between McGrath and Racey to suggest that their characters would ever be best friends. Within their individual performances, though, there are things to savor.
Racey’s body language as Felix is exquisite, whether he’s paralyzed with sweaty desperation, frantically orbiting the room, or slinking out of the apartment with an air of wounded hauteur that would make Norma Desmond proud. McGrath, attired in T-shirt, sneakers, and backward-facing baseball cap, has a slouchy demeanor and sardonic, wised-up delivery that makes him entirely plausible as a sportswriter. It’s an appealingly relaxed portrayal; if there’s a Zen state of slovenliness, McGrath’s Oscar has achieved it.
But in general the production fails to generate a sense of surprise and immediacy, or to make the enterprise come across as much more than a variation on a well-worn theme. Robert Rutland, Patrick Noonan, Brian D. Coats, and David Mason are capable enough as the poker buddies, but they don’t make a terribly vivid impression. It’s not until the endearingly daffy Pigeon sisters arrive on the scene that this production comes to life.
Jennifer Cody and Erin Lindsey Krom, as Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, deftly capture the way this quirky British pair combine innocence and innuendo. The raucous Cody in particular is a hoot, seeming at times like she’ll shake herself to pieces with self-delighted laughter. She supplies a burst of originality in a production that could use more of it.