BWW Review: THE ODD COUPLE at Hale Center Theater Orem
Opposites attract -- but not always amicably.
THE ODD COUPLE, Neil Simon's standout work, is handsomely staged at Hale Center Theater Orem.
Good friends become bad housemates when they find themselves separated from their spouses. One is a slob and the other a neat freak, sharing an apartment, and bickering as husband and wife is ripe comic terrain. The famous comic playwright had an ingenious lightening bolt when he decided to ricochet the buddy, domestic and unhappy-marriage genres, upping the fish-out-of-water concept. The distraught Felix (Mr. Neat) Unger moves in with Oscar (Mr. Sloppy) Madison after his wife suddenly ends their marriage.
It's an evening-long feast of one-liners and comic situations, so neatly presented by Simon as he devises variations on this inspired theme that ODD COUPLE has endured. The standard was set -- and comedy writing (primarily TV-sitcom writing) that combines manic physical frolics with zinger retorts has been influenced since.
The play premiered in 1965, was adapted into a film in 1968 and then became television history during the 1970s.
Director David Morgan shows a deft ability to keep the antics at a quick pace and brings out the contrasting personalities between Oscar and Felix.
Both Jake Ben Suazo as the unkempt Oscar and Geoff Means as the obsessive-compulsive Felix are strong in their roles, with Suazo's razor-sharp ability delivering his lines revealed through his work as a founding and long-standing member of the Thrillionaries improv group. He adds a zestful Jackie Gleason influence to his characterization without taking the inspiration to the moon. Means is more challenged to make his insufferable perfectionist character relatable. It's a harder character to play, and he shows great conviction. It's easy to imagine less-talented actors overplaying the comedy.
Rounding out the cast are the colorful weekly poker-playing characters: Murray, the cop (Bryan M. Dayley); Roy, the accountant (Ben Parkes); Vinnie, the wimpy husband (a truly wimpy Daniel Hess); and "Speed," the curmudgeon (Achelalus Crisanto). The men-in-groups repartee glistens in their hands.
Making brief second-act appearances are the engaging sisters, Gwendolyn (Alice Johnson) and Cecily (Becca Ashton). Johnson and Ashton are fine in their roles, with the director's only misstep in presenting them as mirror-image twins. Gwendolyn should be reserved and primly proper, with Cecily more flirtatious and outgoing. Cocktails in hand would have given the feminine duo more to do than constantly adjusting their skirts and smoothing their lacquered coiffures.
The HCTO production team is expert at staging in-the-round, and the intimate space heightens audience experience. There's dramatic tension in which theatergoer will depart with linguine -- not spaghetti -- flung in anger from the stage. (Relax: The target is the kitchen, missing within reach seats.) Bobby Swenson's set is cluttered, as it should be; but the actors comfortably maneuver the limited space allotted. The men's wardrobe is not always period, but still defining.
Intelligent theater is the norm, and it's creatively staged to overcome any constraint, rather than eye-blinding, neon-glittered spectacles routinely seen from the privileged and overbearing "sister" company to the north.
My problem with THE ODD COUPLE is the third-act conclusion, which the playwright tirelessly struggled with during multiple out-of-town tryouts, as described in Christopher Clark's engaging dramaturg notes. Were it not for the original staging's expert guidance from director Mike Nichols that pushed Simon forward, the play could have been as Simon once summarized: "a grim, dark play about two lonely men that would probably be the end of my career."
The ending is too abrupt, with little revealed other than misery loves a roommate: If you're unhappy with your romantic partnership, you'll be unhappy with a platonic domestic partnership.
"Is that all there is?" I asked myself. THE ODD COUPLE is less a comedy classic than a TV series pilot. Mildly comedic bickering to continue weekly.