As I was about to say back in the Before Times, before the rest of the world and I were so rudely interrupted: Anybody for a little vintage Neil Simon?
No, really. That’s what I was working on a pandemonium ago, back in March of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic swooped in and stopped pretty much everything in its tracks: a dual review of a pair of old-time theatricals that were playing in town, Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and that old Simon reliable The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. The abrupt closures of just about everything shut down both productions and the review, too, as if in mid-keystroke. I turned my immediate attention instead to this news report, Corona corona, where you been so long?, which took the temperature of the sudden cultural disruption, revealed in hindsight how much we didn’t know yet, and mentioned the cancellation of those two shows.
Cancelled they remained for more than a year and a half – until Lakewood decided it was going to bring back the poker gang and resume its production of The Odd Couple now that audiences were trickling back into theaters again, if masked and under strict vaccination requirements. (Triangle’s been back to live performances for some time now, but Blood Brothers never returned from the dead.) And as if to prove that time is a fickle thing, suddenly the resuscitated Odd Couple is entering its final weekend, with performances Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17. Abashed, I dug into the files to see if the Odd Couple section of that not-quite-finished column was still there. So it was. And so it is, below. No, I haven’t been back to see the show. But I saw it then, and I have faith in its comic perpetrators:
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to the theatrical forum last week: The Odd Couple and Blood Brothers popped up out of the blue, like a couple of energetic geezer gladiators surprisingly surviving a political street brawl and duking it out in the primaries. At a time when Portland’s just emerging from the all-new-all-the-time Fertile Ground festival of new works, and the theatrical world as a whole seems fully committed to tackling the contemporary world and its issues head-on, the addition of a 1965 hit Broadway farce and a myth-drenched 1981 British musical sends things whirling back to another century. Who let the old dogs out? Do they still have some bark and bite?
Sometimes boys just wanna have fun. And slovenly Oscar and neat-freak Felix have been having fun being miserable for more than half a century in The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s enduringly popular comedy, whose latest local revival is onstage through April 12 at Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego. This isn’t just another small-town community theater production of a sure-fire box office draw: It brings together a stellar cast of comic character actors, led by Grant Byington as Felix and Don Alder as Oscar, in a kind of celebration of the Ghost of American Comedy Past. It’s a revival of another sort, too: Byington and Alder starred for Odd Couple director Pat Patton in a knockout 2015 production for Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative of a very different sort of comedy, Waiting for Godot. Add Lakewood’s all-star lineup of sidekicks and hopes run high.
The Odd Couple isn’t Godot, and Lakewood’s production doesn’t have the magic of that 2015 Godot revival. But it’s a genuinely good, entertaining, and swift-moving show that reveals both the enduring modernity of Simon’s play and the things that make it a stylistic throwback. After 55 years it becomes possible to see it a little less as a boffo Broadway crowd-pleaser and a little more as a mid-20th century American updating of the comedies of manners of William Congreve or Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Like their plays it’s intentionally brittle and caricatured and glossy on the surface, but with surprising internal resonance and awareness of human foibles and the unease that comes with social convention. Turns out, Simon the funnyman who never met a punch line he didn’t like was also Simon the keen social observer, capable of puncturing pomposity and revealing the vulnerabilities huddling beneath the swaggering surfaces.
As a director, Patton’s always appreciated the playfulness in plays, and without overplaying his poker hand in The Odd Couple, he lets it easily play out. That weekly poker game at Oscar’s Manhattan apartment is central to the action, and its regulars supply the splendid chorus for Felix and Oscar’s soaring duets of bickering. Danny Bruno is the cigar-chomping, wise-cracking bachelor Speed; Todd Hermanson (who played Pozzo in that 2015 Godot) the longsuffering cop Murray; Mark Schwahn the softie Vinnie (he seems to actually enjoy his wife’s company, and goes off with her to Florida for an off-season vacation, when it’s sweltering but cheap); Gary Powell the pragmatic Roy, who would just like the game to get going.
There’s a lot here about male bonding, from a mid-20th century perspective, and more subtly about intimate relationships in general. How do we deal with the fact that we are what we are, and how do we curb the excesses of what we are enough to actually get along successfully with the people we love? Simon plays splendidly with caricature, cracking it open just enough for audiences to see the lostness and searching below the surfaces: Is this all there is, this persona I project to protect myself? Supposedly carefree divorced guy Oscar invites his best buddy …
AND THAT’S AS FAR AS I’D GOT before the Covid pandemic pretty much shut down the world, and before the walls, including theater’s fabled fourth wall, came tumbling down. The odd couple, like pretty much everyone else, were odd men out, without a stage or an audience: all dressed up and nowhere to play. It made little sense, at a time when everything was falling apart and ArtsWatch was trying to report on where the pieces were landing, to finish writing a review of a well-known play that was suddenly off the boards.
Still, you probably know the rest. Hyper-meticulous Felix moves in, the poker buddies sprawl across the stage, the giddily feminine Pigeon Sisters (Melissa Whitney and Christy Bigelow) enter the nest, Oscar continues his slovenly ways, and everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves until … well, you know. Life gets rearranged. If it’s a formula, it’s a good formula, and in uncertain times a little formula to play around with isn’t at all a bad thing.
In the continuing morass of Covidom, something’s comforting about those old-time rituals, when a batting average was a batting average and starting pitchers threw complete games and an ace was honor-bound not to hide up anyone’s sleeve. Now, about that poker game. Who’s bringing snacks?