Theater review: The Odd Couple at SART
The Odd Couple, now at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre at Mars Hill University, is our second Neil Simon play of the season, after Flat Rock Playhouse’s production of Proposals last month. The difference is, The Odd Couple is Simon at his lightly comic best, a multi-Tony Award winner (including for Best New Play) squeezed between Barefoot in the Park and Sweet Charity in the mid 1960s.
The play retains its innocent sense of the absurdity of the ordinary, and it’s clear Simon’s still in love with his characters, rather than chiefly trying to milk them for laughs. The SART production shares that grounded sweetness, and while the humor may have lost some potency over the years, the SART show still draws smiles simply from the audience’s affection for its main characters.
The plot — divorced slob Oscar, with a big New York City apartment, takes in neatnik pal Felix, recently separated from his wife — needs no long explanation. The play inspired a successful Hollywood film, with original Broadcast cast member Walter Matthau, joined by Jack Lemmon, and a beloved 1970s sitcom, which made television stars out of Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. It’s been produced with all-African-American casts and has attracted Felixes as diverse as Martin Short, Matthew Broderick and Pat Sajak.
SART is blessed with Jef Canter (a bona fide New Yorker) as Oscar and Randy Noojin as Felix. Canter makes for a less gruff than usual Oscar, playing him rather as a teddy bear who embraces irresponsibility and carelessness as a way of convincing himself he’s OK being alone. On that emotional foundation, Canter builds a fine comic performance, modulated between easy wisecracks and hilarious shout-bursts.
Noojin taps into both Felix’s haughtiness and his fragility, making a second act scene where he breaks down with two dinner guests credible and touching. He plays the comedy with the exaggerated gravitas Felix needs, eliciting laughs that blend sympathy and absurdity.
Those dinner guests are also fun company: British sisters from upstairs named Cecily and Gwendolyn, played by Lara Hollaway (Kate Monster from Avenue Q at Asheville Community Theatre) and Rebecca O’Quinn (who’s also a dancer). The parts are underwritten — Simon’s naive sexism was still in full force — but Hollaway and O’Quinn flesh them out in performance, giving them some gusto and some sense of self-determination.
Timothy Wilde brings new insights to Murray the cop, whose working-class cluelessness in this production becomes a kind of unfulfilled aspiration to the upper crust. Murray’s always gentle; Wilde makes him almost gentile, which underlines the humor nicely.
Oscar’s other poker buddies are barely given anything to play by Simon, and the players are somewhat at sea here. Tristan Brown had a nice moment opening night, improvising a punchline out of a chair that broke unexpectedly. Tony Medlin, as Speed, is a fireball who never quite gets to ignite, and Paul Penderman does his best to play Roy the accountant from behind an embarrassing and unprofessional plastic mustache. (Please tell me it disappears from later performances. It’s a real distraction.)
As indicated by that mustache, director Charlotte Tiencken doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the poker pals. Their scenes require a choreographed chaos and snappiness that this production doesn’t manage. But Tiencken is adept at bringing out the nuances of Felix and Oscar’s relationship and maximizing the tenderness and entertainment value of their interactions, and that’s really what the show is all about.
That, and Oscar’s sprawling apartment, nicely realized by set designer Richard Seagle and well lit by Andrew Zebroski and Braeden Johnson. The costumes — appropriate to the 1960s setting, where The Odd Couple belongs — are by Jenny Webb, the sound design by Cassidy Robbins. Other than some uncooperative chairs, the props by Brianna Brunner do their job well. Stage management is by the team of Kenndi Traynor, Tristan Brown and Brianna Brunner.
The Odd Couple runs through June 30 at SART’s Owen Theatre home on the campus of Mars Hill University. Visit sartplays.com for more details and tickets.
(Photos by Cheyenne Darcy, courtesy of SART)