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BWW Review: THE ODD COUPLE At Desert Stages Theatre

The production runs through April 5th. Starring Walt Pedano and J Kevin Tallent, this production, directed by Virginia Olivieri, falls short on laughs.

BWW Review: THE ODD COUPLE At Desert Stages Theatre BWW Review: THE ODD COUPLE At Desert Stages Theatre

In a 1996 interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Neil Simon spoke about the imbalance between his desire for leisure time and his need to write: "I'm my own odd couple," he said. (Simon died at the age of 91 in August 2018.)

Simon's tilt toward playwriting inured to the benefit of generations of audiences in the thousands of laughs he generated with timeless comedies among which THE ODD COUPLE endures (arguably) at the top of the list.

Since its 1965 premiere on Broadway, the classic confrontation between two polar opposites ~ the iconic characters of the hypochondriac stickler for order and neatness Felix Unger and the devil-may-care unkempt sportswriter Oscar Madison ~ has featured the magical pairings of some of the stage's most notable comedic actors: Walter Matthau and Art Carney, Jack Klugman and Pat Hingle, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. (Think too about the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Matthau as they recreated the roles on film and Tony Randall and Klugman in the TV sitcom series.)

Chemistry and balance! Two key ingredients that are (oddly!) in short supply in Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's current production of THE ODD COUPLE, directed by Virginia Olivieri. Simon's brilliant lines and zingers are there to be uttered, but the execution stumbles. The laugh-a-minute lines are buried in excessive gesticulations, inflated outbursts by Oscar and his poker table chums, and awkward stabs at blocking that sometimes reel into slapstick.

This reviewer expected the hilarious and was sorely disappointed by its absence. No sidesplitting moments here.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a brief synopsis: Oscar Madison (J Kevin Tallent) is a sportswriter and a divorcee, who relishes his unkempt bachelor life and weekly poker games (served with warm Coke and moldy sandwiches) with his motley crew, Murray the cop (Eric Banks), Speed (Paul Hartwell), Roy the accountant (Kip Emerson), and Vinnie (Casey Cowen). One evening, one of the group, Felix Unger, shows up late ~ verklempt, adrift, and suicidal after being thrown out by his wife. Oscar takes pity on the man and invites him to take refuge in his apartment. The favor is returned in maddening spades as the obsessive neat-freak indulges in a storm of domesticity and turns Oscar's world of clutter upside down. When Oscar concocts a plan to lift Felix out of the doldrums ~ involving a double-date with two coquettish and giggly neighbors, the Pigeon sisters (Samantha Hartwell and Stephanie Vlasich) ~ Felix unfailingly foils it. What other solution can there be but a divorce between these two irreconcilably different characters?

In viewing THE ODD COUPLE, there is always a cautionary note to avoid comparisons with the most recognizable stars of the show. Instead, one looks for fresh and original directorial interpretations of the story that still remain true to the playwright's intent.

What may have been "odd" in '65 about two guys (and polar opposites at that) sharing an apartment or a man keen on cooking and vacuuming isn't at all today. And what might have been acceptable about pigeon-holing women as sex objects and flaunting their accessories isn't either. So, the challenge in a 2021 version of this play is to plumb the depths and find the nuances in the dysfunctional relationship between Oscar and Felix. It also imposes on the actors the imperative of clearly defining the arc of tension between their characters and delivering Simon's classic one-liners with impeccable timing.

These demands go unfulfilled, albeit the leads bring to their roles tons of experience and accomplishments as two veteran actors in Phoenix community theatre. Yet, the impeccable timing and the delivery of lines that one might normally associate with their performances is wanting. The offering is delivered without the rapier-like wit or heartbreaking pathos that is crucial to the appreciation of their characters.

There's an arc in the development of the characters that must be obeyed if the play is to land right. In DST's iteration, Tallent is framed as a disgruntled and often raging bull. The portrayal of Oscar in this regard conceals what might otherwise be a nuanced shift in his feelings about Felix ~ from begrudging pity to impatience, from anger and frustration to resignation and acceptance. With Pedano, given to play a clownish caricature of a hapless neurotic with flashes of pitiable pathos, the chemistry of the two languishes.

Potentially hilarious moments lack punch. Oh, for the moment, for example, that Felix's carefully prepared linguini gets tossed as "garbage" at Oscar's hands... but, alas, the throw falls flat.

The appearance of Samantha Hartwell as Cecily and Stephanie Vlasich as Gwendolyn Pigeon is a momentous occasion for the play as their portrayals add a refreshing dash of spice and gleeful wit to the proceedings. That's chemistry!

There's more that seems to fall short in this production. Aside from a bowl of baseballs on a mantel and a few strewn blankets on a couch, there's none of the dishevelment and sports paraphernalia that one might (that Simon meant to) associate with the likes of Oscar Madison. And, I don't mean to quibble, but there is mention of rugs but no carpeting to be found!

THE ODD COUPLE continues its run through April 5th.

Photo credit to Renee Ashlock: 1: L to R: Tallent, Pedano. 2: L to R: Hartwell, Banks, Cowen, Emerson, Hartwell, Pedano, Vlasich, Tallent

Desert Stages Theatre ~ https://www.desertstages.org/ ~ 7014 E Camelback Rd., Suite #0856, Scottsdale Fashion Square, Scottsdale, AZ ~ 480-483-1664


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