Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chautauqua takes on the Odd Couple (Female Version)

l to r: Warren Harrison, Susan Madden, Georgann Wallace, Chris Lamb. Chautauqua Playhouse photo.
It was probably inevitable that the Chautauqua Playhouse in Carmichael would take on Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple (Female Version).” The theater’s leaders have a keen eye for what pleases mainstream audiences, and you can’t do much better than Neil Simon, even when he imitates himself.

The Bronx-born playwright’s most popular creation is no doubt his 1965 “The Odd Couple,” about two incompatible middle-aged roommates, the slovenly Oscar and the neatnik Felix. From stage to film to long-running TV series, the yarn keeps on captivating the public. Pressed by demanding fans Simon created a female version in 1986. Though it apes the original, with additions of lots of new jokes and whacko characters, it falls short as a match for its model.

The first version seized on two notable opposites among men—today we’d call them jocks and nerds. Put them together and you get automatic, and very funny, conflict. But the dynamics are not quite the same for women, at least by popular observation. It’s no news that today’s women still tend to enjoy domesticity, even when they pursue professional careers. And though there may be some female slobs, they don’t amount to a notable “type.”

Still, at least in the second act, we do get tension between Florence (Georgann Wallace), the compulsive housekeeper and cook, and her apartment mate Olive (Susan Madden), rather more casual than outright sloppy. But the script strains for more conflict between them than seems really plausible—at least to the point where Olive throws Florence out of the apartment.

And yet in some ways the sequel outdoes the original. Oscar and Felix joined in an unsuccessful double date with the Pigeon sisters, a pair occupying an apartment in the same building. But the scene is merely so-so. One of the comic highlights, though, of the female version is the appearance of the Costazuela brothers (Warren Harrison as Manolo; Chris Lamb as Jesus) as Spanish neighbors to Olive and Florence. Their scenes leave us breathless with laughter.

There also seems to be some ambiguity about the time frame. The playbill tells us that the time is “Now”; if so, we’re confronted with anachronisms. Unfortunately Simon demands that anyone who produces a play of his must observe the letter of the script. Thus the current offering, like its male predecessor, seems to take place in 1965. And there would be no gain trying to play the show as a period piece because costumes and furniture haven’t changed markedly since then.

The play starts by paralleling the poker game that opened the male version. Olive plays host to four friends—Sylvie (Betsaida LeBron), Mickey (Eileen Beaver), Renee (Debbie Otto) and Vera (Cathy Rasmussen)—but instead of poker they play Trivial Pursuit. Simon even steals a gag from the first version by having Olive offer them a choice between “brown sandwiches and green sandwiches.”

The gathering is funny but out of tune with today. The game calls for identifying baseball stars from 1903 and actors who played the title role in Charlie Chan movies, facts that might likely be known only by people in their late seventies or eighties. There’s an even bigger gaffe later in the play: a reference to Adlai Stevenson as if he were still alive, though he died in 1965.

Setting aside these strains on our willing suspension of disbelief, the production does offer a delightful evening with a professional-level cast under the savvy direction of Jill McMahon.

“The Odd Couple (Female Version)” continues through July 19 at the Chautauqua Playhouse, 5325 Engle Road in the La Sierra Community Center in Carmichael. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There will be Thursday performances on July 2 and 9 but no performance on July 4. Admission is $15- $17. Call (916) 489-7529 (PLAY). See also http://www.cplayhouse.com/.

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