Encore Michigan

JET kicks off next 30 years with ‘The Odd Couple’

Review June 16, 2019 David Kiley

WALLED LAKE, Mich.–Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple is so well written that theaters keep doing it even after fifty years. The story is all so familiar, but audiences keep going back. That’s the way it is with good writing.

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre has opened its 30th season in its new space with the comedy classic. And a unique combination of actors playing Oscar and Felix make the trip back to that eight room New York City apartment a most enjoyable evening.

Greg Trzaskoma inhabits the character of Felix, the fussy, newly separated news writer who goes to live with his sloppy sportswriter-bestie Oscar Madison. At first glance, you might think Trzaskoma is better suited to play sloppy Oscar. But the versatile actor slips right into the anxious, shy-with-women, heartsick neatnik. The actor seems to find his inner Felix in his neat close-cropped hair, which Oscar, played by Fred Buchalter, refers to as “clenched.”

As it was opening night, save for a preview earlier in the week for VIP donors, the two actors seemed at first to not be all that comfortable. I wondered if they might have been reverse cast. But by Act Two and Three, they seem to have settled in to a kind of divorcee man-wedded familiarity.

The poker players, important in the story as judges, enablers and foils for the two leads, manage to hold together pretty well as a unit despite a few hurdles to clear–namely the varying ages of the actors. David Gram plays an excellent Roy, the sensible accountant; Alex Macksoud is the nebbish Vinnie; AJ Howell as Speed, who was drafted in from his role as a JET apprentice when an actor was injured, holds his own pretty well as the hard-bitten, cigar-chomping Speed despite his youth; Todd St. George is the avuncular Murray The Cop. As the play is set firmly in the early 60s ($200 a month rent for an eight-room apartment in midtown Manhattan) and these men are supposed to scan for middle aged, I’d make a case for Howell and Macksound getting rid of their very modern looking young beards. It throws off the visuals. And one of them is supposed to be 42 years old in the script. I, for one would be for tinkering the script a little to account for a range of actors’ ages, but the Simon estate is unfortunately a stickler for these things

The Pigeon Sisters from upstairs in the same apartment building as the boys are played by Wendy Katz Hiller as Gwen and Meredith Deighton, and as is the case with many productions they steal the scenes they are in with their well done cockney accents and moist sexual overtones.

Stephanie Baugher designed a very crisp, believable bachelor-pad set and Director Mary Bremer Beer has led a very solid production with only a few small details off-kilter that probably only Odd Couple freaks would pick up. Oscar very clearly throws a plate of linguini down into an off-stage bin instead of up against a wall. It’s a key scene, with dialogue around it, but it isn’t sold by Oscar. And the poker players mysteriously refer to a “goil” that Felix might have. They haven’t been talking like they are from the Lower east Side, but suddenly it’s “goil” instead of “girl.” It’s a speedbump.

Lucky for the troupe that the writing is so good that they will easily buff off the splinters after opening night. After all, a few days before they opened the space was still being drilled, plastered and sanded. It’s a fresh start for the JET, one of the best theater companies in the state for the last three decades.

Neil Simon has lent his considerable talents to launch the new era, and the JET is flying high again.

Week of 1/27/2020

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