Many of Neil Simon's plays are timeless, easily producing hearty laughs and heartfelt sentiments decades after they dominated Broadway.
The Odd Couple, Pioneer Theatre Company's latest show, proves trickier to translate for modern audiences than the likes of other Simon period pieces like Brighton Beach Memoir or Biloxi Blues. The familiar tale of ill-matched roommates Oscar Madison and Felix Unger is still remarkably strong at showcasing adult male friendships, and the tricky business of living with someone with a different personality. But some of the jokes and dialogue from the 1968-set plot don't land in 2013 with the same crack they might have had for audiences 30 or 40 years ago.
The Odd Couple opens with one of its strongest scenes, a gathering of poker-playing buddy's in Oscar's eight-room New York City apartment. Simon's strength is smart, fast dialogue, and the scene of five men trading barbs while they wait for Felix to join set up a night full of consistent, if light, laughs. In fact, the four friends who revolve around Oscar (Mark Le Mura) and Felix (Jeff Talbott) provide some of the strongest moments of the entire show, between cop Murray's (Joe DeBevc) genuine concern for the unexplained tardiness of Felix, and Speed's (Paul Kiernan) brusque annoyance at his poker game's delay.
Felix is late because he's split from his wife, and The Odd Couple's plot quickly moves to Oscar inviting his buddy to move into his spacious abode as a way to ease the transition to single life--something Oscar has also gone through. There are a few touching moments along the way where Felix and Oscar share the travails of being dads and divorced, but they are largely shoved aside in favor of the jokes inspired by Oscar's slovenly ways rubbing against Felix's finicky fastidiousness.
The first act is primarily set-up for the far more energetic second, when a double-date with the neighboring Pigeon Sisters (Helen Anker and Amy Bodnar) injects the show with a boost of hyperactive slapstick. The British women arrive in full, colorful '60s hipster attire, and to Oscar's chagrin, immediately bond with the mopey Felix over his heartbreak. The disastrous date leads to a blow-up fight between Felix and Oscar. Not to worry, though--the tiff is easily wrapped up and all is forgiven by show's end, just like a popular sitcom, which the The Odd Couple became after Simon's play had been adapted into a feature film.
The play's direction by Pioneer Artistic Director karen Azenberg is crisp, making full use of an amazingly detailed set design by Michael Schweikardt. From the large wooden spoon and fork hanging on the wall of the kitchen, to the flowery, Goodwill-ready couch and chair, it's easy to believe the action on stage is taking place in 1968. (Harder to believe is that there was EVER a time when an eight-room apartment in New York City could be found for $240 a month).
Fans of Simon's work will find much to love in Pioneer's production, although I would have liked more background into Felix and Oscar's relationship; when Oscar declares that Felix is his best friend, there has been little evidence of that in their interactions on stage. But if you can accept that two seemingly opposite personalities can truly love and appreciate each other's quirks, you can love The Odd Couple.
Pioneer Theatre Company's The Odd Couple runs Mondays through Saturdays until April 6. Tickets and showtimes are available at the Pioneer Website.