‘The Odd Couple’ at Thunder Bay Theatre pushes some conventions
ALPENA, Mich.–Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple is one of the most performed and adapted plays in the world, and for good reason. The writing is pitch perfect, even if the story is oh-so-familiar by now. And theaters know that if they put it on, the people will come. Like baseball in summer, the people will surely come.
The trick with this play is delivering if the director has not cast age-appropriate actors, which, in the Simon play as written, are in their 40s. In this new Thunder Bay Theatre production, the actors all seem to be in their 20s. Why does age matter? The story is about two friends who are divorced (Oscar) and divorcing (Felix) and a group of marriage-weary poker players–a cop (Murray), an accountant (Roy), a poker-loving sharpie (Speed) and a nerd (Vinnie). Set in the mid 1960s, the friends’ humor and demeanor is crusty and sarcastic. Tough to pull off “crusty” if you were born while Bill Clinton was President. Though Simon also wrote a version for a female cast too, it always seems a smidge off when high school or college-age actors play it.
That said, the ensemble who come together in this production do very solid work on the Simon classic. Christopher Berghoff as Oscar plays the role of the unkempt ring leader, a big-time New York sportswriter, with a good amount of sloppy suave. Corey C Moore plays the clean-freak, sentimental romantic, love-lorn Felix with anxiety as long as his lanky frame. Mr. Moore is African-American, which, at first, is a bit jarring as I have never seen the Oscar and Felix couple played inter-racially. But the two actors find their comic chemistry and it quickly feels all of a piece.
The poker ensemble: Speed is played by Farrell Tatum. I don’t know if the director cast a woman as Speed out of necessity, or choice, but Ms. Tatum does a pretty nice job of playing the cigar-chomping obsessive poker player. Rather than pretend Speed is a man when clearly it is not the case (the attractive Ms. Tatum could not even fake that, the pronouns in the play are changed to “she” in referring to Speed.
Herein lies some of the interesting questions that arise when doing a period play with modern actors, and the director, Anthony Guest, makes choices in the context of his needs in 2018. “Of course, I can cast a woman to play Speed,” Guest probably said. And who’s to argue, except Neil Simon, who is well-known to be very persnickety about monkeying with his plays. But while casting an actress and giving her a vape cigar to puff, why not go further and change the time to the present. In that case, though, I can think of one line that would have to be ditched or changed. There is a reference to the Odd Couple’s eight-room upper-eastside apartment carrying a rent of $240 per month. I seriously doubt that was the case even in 1965. So, if Simon can make stuff up for the story, I say why can’t the director too!
The casting of both Ms. Tatum and Mr. Moore raise fascinating questions and debate fodder (to me, anyway) about what is ripe to play with when working with a play. David Mamet, for example, shut down a production of his Oleanna when the director changed one of the characters to being gay.
The rest if the ensemble is mostly very solid as well. Matthew Porter embodies the nerdy, whiny, cringing Vinnie in his physical acting and look, accented by a very strange hair-do that works perfectly for the role. Another highlight are Grace Taylor and Rebecca Taylor. Twins in real-life, the sisters deliciously play The Pigeon sisters, the upstairs British hotties that date Oscar and Felix. The Taylors shine on stage like beacons of adorable sex for these two struggling divorcees. Jake Lanier is a solid Roy, a gruff and plaintive New Yorker.
The role of Murray is played by Caleb Richards. Here again, I raise questions about the choices by actor and director. Mr. Richards is never seen in a police uniform of any kind in three sequences. This is typically not the case as Murray, in at least one scene, is most often in other productions dressed in at least a police shirt and badge to assert his “I’m a cop ya know” bonafides. Too, Mr. Caleb sports a modern beard, a definite No No in the New York police department of 1965 unless he was an undercover cop like Frank Serpico, which is not the case.
Quibbles? Probably. But when you take on one of the most oft seen and performed comedies of the last 100 years of theater, there is a responsibility to bring new, coherent wrinkles to the production while also honoring the text of a living playwright and the context of a play. From a technical standpoint, Mr. Guests’s choices and allowances seem a bit loose and inconsistent to an “Odd Couple” aficionado.
However (and this is the takeaway from this production), Neil Simon’s timeless writing is in very capable hands with this cast and crew, and it makes for a lovely night out at the theatre, especially in Alpena where winter is fighting off spring like a pug boxer who just won’t go down.