BWW Review: Emily Belvo & Jonelle Meyer Are Perfect in Hat Trick Theatre's Imperfect Production of Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE FEMALE VERSION
They had me at Belvo.
When I first heard that Hat Trick Theatre was producing the female version of Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE, starring Emily Belvo as the neurotic neatnik Florence Unger, I knew it had more than a chance of being a stellar offering. Ms. Belvo is one of the theatrical gifts to our area, and even if a show she's in doesn't quite hit the heights, she alone will turn in gutsy, imaginative and thrilling work and make it worthwhile just by her presence. She's truly alive onstage.
And then when I heard that they added the wondrously quirky Jonelle Meyer into the mix as the Slob Queen roomie of Florence's, Olive Madison, I realized this production became a "can't miss" opportunity. Two great comic actresses, with two very different and distinct styles, in the same show, pitted against each other. And both of them have such great energy and chemistry that I wondered if they should be a comedy team in their own rights, a modern-day Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda, or Shirley and Laverne. They're truly laugh-out-loud funny, and I did just that for nearly two hours--I laughed out loud quite often at their bickering antics and snarky one-upmanship. (For the record, I'm not an easy laugher, especially when I know the script so well.)
Watching Belvo and Meyer onstage is the main reason to see this ODD COUPLE. It makes audiences wonder what other two-person comedies are out there for these fine actresses to nibble on. [Note to theatre companies around the Tampa-St. Pete area: Please add a slot in your schedule for next season to get these two onstage together again!] And if you're a local, then you need to take a jaunt on over to Ruth Eckerd Hall's Murray Theatre to see these two in action. Their comic timing is exquisite, and their physicality is not to be missed. Meyer physicalizes sexual repression better than anyone in entirely new and bizarre leg-shaking ways; and Belvo's alarming and noisy ritual to clear out her ears sounds like a dying bird. It's not to be missed.
I haven't heard sustained laughter like that from an audience in a long time, especially from a script that is decades old.
THE ODD COUPLE, easily identified as Neil Simon's masterpiece, has become an industry of sorts since its Broadway premiere in 1965. There was the initial Broadway run of 964 performances that closed in 1967; the classic 1968 film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Felix and Oscar; the beloved TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman; the Saturday morning cartoon (The Oddball Couple featuring Spiffy, the clean Cat, and Fleabag, the messy dog); the female version written in 1985 which substituted Olive and Florence for Oscar and Felix, and Trivial Pursuit for poker; more stage versions, including a memorable one starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane; and more network versions, including a more recent variation with Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon that ended its TV run in 2017. That's a lot of Odd Couples that we've smilingly endured these past 50 years, and I'm glad that Hat Trick chose the female version in order to get Belvo and Meyer onstage, together, to show off their comic gold.
But Belvo and Meyer have met their comic match with actual brothers, Nick Torres and Cristian Torres, who play Olive and Florence's dates in Act 2, the Constanzuela Brothers. If you recall the Pigeon Sisters from the original, then you know that you're in for knee-slapping hilarity with these two.
Nick Torres is electric as Manolo, a foreigner who doesn't let misunderstood language get in his way. He's so gregarious and overtly courteous, almost to a fault. His reactions to Florence, with his wide eyes looking as though they're about to pop out of their sockets, kept leaving the audience in stitches. And Cristian Torres rightly underplays Jesus, so nearly every joke of his hits the bull's eye. Their entrance uproariously kept the show at such a high level of energy that it never quite recovered from their absence later on, except a cameo from Manolo near the end. Perhaps both Torres brothers should teach a class: How to Steal a Show from Two Comic Goddesses Without Really Trying.
But this ODD COUPLE is far from perfect in other parts. The show starts off on the wrong foot, with a not-very-funny Trivial Pursuit game. You could almost feel the audience muttering a collective "OH NO!" in these first few minutes. It felt off, closer to the start of a low grade community theatre production than a professional undertaking....until Jonelle Meyer's Olive made her first entrance and jolted the play to life. Her performance actually seemed to rev up the other actresses. Sarah Pullman-Atanacio, Megan Lamasney, Bianca Badia and Amanda Milanetti (the latter sounding a lot like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny) play Olive's circle of friends, her game night gals, and their work improved greatly as the show went on.
But there were also individual moments with some of the minor parts that were not believable, including a telephone call where one of the actresses did not leave enough time to hear the (imaginary) voice on the other end of the phone; you never got the sense that she was talking to an actual person. And so many comic moments and one-liners were missed by off-timing with some of the supporting roles. If this was an amateur production, then maybe something like this would be forgivable. But this is a professional show, and a couple of these performances, to varying degrees, just did not match the work of the immensely likable leads.
Jack Holloway has directed the play with a sure hand. The pacing and the staging are sensationally realized; it's a fast two hours. There are so many high-octane physical bits, including a crazy chase around the apartment, that are brilliantly choreographed. And for the most part, he just let Belvo and Meyer play without forcing anything or getting in the way of their dynamics.
Paul McColgen's set is awe-inspiring. At the start of the show it's a gorgeously messy pit of a New York City apartment, with pizza boxes and bags of garbage strewn about; but after the OCD-like clean-aholic Florence arrives, it's a spic and span model abode. I have only a couple of minor qualms. Qualm #1: The Trivial Pursuit box would not be neatly stacked on the shelf at the start of the show, when sloppy Olive is running things. She would not take the time to pristinely place the box on that back shelf. That should be a change that Florence should make in Act 2. Qualm #2: A calendar in the kitchen looks quite worn and would definitely have been changed by Florence later in the show. Also, I doubt Olive should have a calendar in the first place since she's always late, and a person with her magnitude of mess just wouldn't care enough to have one on the wall (with days marked off, no less).
Michael Shine, the best name ever for a lighting designer, does good work here that never calls attention to itself. Misty Foster's costumes are quite appropriate, from Olive's dowdy Tomboy look to Florence's perfectly ironed wardrobe. And Lani Winskye's properties work well enough for the most part (though I'm still wondering why Florence doesn't wear a wedding ring in her first scene).
The music between scenes has some questionable choices. Bill Haley and the Comets' "Shake, Rattle & Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock," along with Link Wray's "Rumble" (one of my favorite all-time instrumentals), are played, leaving us to scratch our heads in puzzlement. I understand that these are odes to the women's pasts--songs they like to sing along with (including the appropriately titled "Big Girls Don't Cry" at the end, which has to be included); I just thought the between-scene songs were more in line with the 1950's instead of the 1980's, when the action of this version obviously takes place.
But any trivial reservations that we may have are easily pushed aside because Belvo and Meyer are so amusing. Belvo can give a mere glance with her Norma Desmond eyes and it's hysterical; and the moment she actually threw a cup against the wall, causing it to shatter all over the place, earned the burst of applause from the audience. And watching Meyer flail about, her body writhing due to sexual yearnings that must be unleashed (it's like an itch that she can't scratch), will have you screaming with laughter. "What sex life?" Olive shouts to Florence near the end. "I can't even have dirty dreams without you coming in and cleaning them up!"
With Belvo and Meyer leading the way, this is as funny an ODD COUPLE as you will likely see.
Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE FEMALE VERSION plays at the Murray Theatre in Ruth Eckerd Hall until February 24th (though there is a chance for an extension).