BWW Review: THE ODD COUPLE Hits Close to Home at St Vincent
Sorry for my long absence, faithful readers (do I even have faithful readers?), but I have a good excuse. Granted, I've been incommunicado since June and missed the entirety of Pittsburgh's major theatrical season, and I'm kicking myself for that, but I have been busy taking my musical Tink! to the New York Musical Festival 2016. We sold out our entire run and won a special award for Outstanding Family Entertainment. Much as I hate to have missed the Pittsburgh CLO summer season in particular, it was all for a good cause. Okay, humble-brag over. Let's talk about The Odd Couple.
It's disingenuous to say that The Odd Couple birthed the sitcom of the same name. Frankly, The Odd Couple birthed the modern sitcom itself. Rapid-fire, often overlapping banter, the blend of comedic and dramatic elements, characters that we aren't expected to particularly like: all these are the hallmarks of Neil Simon's seemingly immortal stage comedy. This immortality is well-supported by the fact that every generation has a different answer to the question "who are the Odd Couple to you?" One might say, with complete validity, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (of the iconic 1970s sitcom), Walter Matthau and Art Carney (of the original play), Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (of the successful Broadway revival), Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon (of the current CBS reboot), or even Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer (come on, don't tell me Two and a Half Men isn't just a reboot of The Odd Couple with a kid added). But with this pedigree, the most surprising thing about the play is how much of a feel-good sitcom it's not.
The St. Vincent Summer Company cast is good enough to rival any of the classic Odd Couples mentioned above, an all-star cast of Pittsburgh's greatest professional stage comics. David Cabot stars as Oscar Madison: divorced, broke, slovenly and completely content in his dissolution. Cabot, whose bio indicates he has played the Grinch multiple times, revels in the role of this overgrown, disgusting man-child; not since Zero Mostel has a smirk and a chuckle gone so far in making us love a truly unlovable fellow. With an assist from his poker buddies, Oscar spends most of Act 1 with one task in mind: keep fragile news writer Felix Unger (Kevin O'Leary)- okay, he insists it's "Ungar" in the stage play, but time has proven Simon's initial spelling wrong- from committing suicide after his wife separates from him against his will. A regular in Pittsburgh and thereabouts, O'Leary has played everything from Disney princes to convicts, but when you think of an essential Kevin O'Leary character, you probably picture a mopey, somewhat epicene figure with a short fuse, a tendency for hysterics and a penchant for flailing physical comedy. O'Leary's Felix more than delivers- he's melodramatic, a little fey, and capable of sucking all the joy out of a room with a single sigh. (If you can picture an unholy fusion of Johnny Galecki's Leonard Hofstedder and Jim Parsons's Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, you're about halfway to O'Leary's comedic persona as Felix Unger.)
The 1960s were a different time, and it took a little bit of adjusting to acclimate myself to how callous Oscar and the rest of the poker players can be to Felix at times. Granted, they go to extremes to prevent him from killing himself, but Felix is very much in need of a therapist from today's standards. He's terribly depressed, appears to have mild-to-severe OCD and (at least in O'Leary's incisive, socially maladjusted portrayal) may even be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He's not terribly fun to be around, but as Felix overstays his welcome crashing at Oscar's disgusting bachelor pad, the ribbing goes from good-natured to vicious. The biggest shock is that Felix doesn't just go ahead and kill himself after all; indeed, Oscar eventually snaps and suggests that he probably should. Luckily, this heavy emotional dysfunction is kept light and breezy thanks to the superb comic timing of Cabot and O'Leary as the titular duo.
The supporting cast have much smaller roles, as huge chunks of Act 2 and Act 3 are two-handers only, but they do a great deal to keep things light and keep things crazy. DAina Griffith and Erin Krom, two perennials of the Pittsburgh stage, have great fun in the glorified cameo roles of the Pigeon sisters, two flirty British expatriates who seemingly exist solely to spout double entendres of the oo-err-missus sort spoofed mercilessly by Monty Python. Like female Austin Powerses, they're the corniest people in the world, and they love it. And of course, no Saint Vincent season is complete without a guest appearance by Pittsburgh's favorite movie extra, local legend Tim Hartman. As none-too-bright Murray the Cop, Hartman infuses the small role with touches of Bert Lahr's charmingly dopey Cowardly Lion.
Director and program head Gregg Brandt has done excellent work making the Saint Vincent summer theatre season a must-see for Pittsburgh theatre fans, and this show, in many ways a reunion of the cast of last summer's Into the Woods, makes for a perfect season closer. Despite its sitcom reputation, Neil Simon's play is a heavier, darker piece than most of the door-slamming farces and dysfunctional-family comedies the summer rep usually produces, and it points to big things ahead in the coming years for the company.