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Funny Women 

Studio Connections' female 'Odd Couple' may not be the perfect play, but it keeps the audience laughing

You don't necessarily need a fresh script, flawless acting and an impeccably honed pace to enjoy yourself at the theater.

Such was the case last weekend, when Studio Connections launched its final show of their season, an equal-opportunity revamp of Neil Simon's wildly successful The Odd Couple. The audience hooted and laughed and applauded and gave no indication that an often-problematic production provided any reason to prevent their wholehearted endorsement.

Perhaps the bulk of their enthusiasm came from the departure from the more-well-known iterations of Simon's recognizable piece: Instead of mismatched roommates Felix and Oscar, we witness mismatched roommates Florence and Olive, as well as their gal pals, who all demonstrate in no small measure that they can be as crass and clueless as their male counterparts.

A female version of The Odd Couple was probably inevitable. Simon's original ran for 966 performances on Broadway, opening in 1965, starring Art Carney and Walter Matthau and winning the Best Play Tony. In 1968, the story was successfully transferred to film, starring Matthau and Jack Lemmon. That was followed by The Odd Couple television series, which launched in 1970 and ran until 1975 on ABC, featuring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. ABC tried a reprise with The New Odd Couple in 1982, which ran 13 episodes and died.

In 1985, Simon sprang the female version on Broadway, starring Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. Tellingly, it ran less than a year. In 1998, Simon, unwilling to believe his Odd Couple mother lode had been exhausted, took a shot at a sequel to the Matthau/Lemmon movie with The Odd Couple II. Even though the two actors reprised their roles, the film was a critical and box-office flop.

You can't blame a guy for trying, right?

Simon's earlier Odd Couple creations are the real gold, so The Odd Couple and The Odd Couple (Female Version) continue to be resurrected by community theaters around the country. It is, after all, Neil Simon, and if anyone can write an audience pleasing gag-fest, Simon certainly can.

In case you have somehow missed exposure to The Odd Couple franchise, here's the scoop, female-persuasion-wise: An eclectic collection of girlfriends (played by Jacinda Swinehart-Johnson, Elayna Direnfeld, Martie van der Voort and Monica Rhodes) gather to play Trivial Pursuit, and while having a raucous good time, a phone call reveals that one of the game-players, who has yet to arrive, is rumored to be missing and has threatened suicide, because her husband has left her. When Florence (Maria Gallardo) finally arrives, Olive (Samantha Cormier) invites her to move in until she can figure out what to do next. The conflict which drives the story and fuels the fun is that Florence is neat, nurturing and controlling, while Olive is sloppy, insensitive and controlling.

The folks at Studio Connections give the story a good workout, and director Robert Encila makes sure that whatever comic possibilities Simon devised are exploited, although not necessarily with full credibility. If not carefully realized, Simon's play can be exposed as a one-joke wonder, with some cracking wise and a few moments of physical comedy requiring ever-so-sensitive timing to support it all.

Encila and his troupe succeed with many of these challenges, although there are some rough spots, with actors fumbling their lines and a still-evolving sense of how the scenes fit together in the most effective rhythm. And the climactic moment—the showdown between Florence and Olive—is oddly passionless, which makes the play's slide into its final twist much less funny and less satisfying than it should be.

Part of the problem is Cormier's characterization of Olive. Simply, she overreaches. She is a pretty fair representation of Olive, but she doesn't become Olive, at least in a way we can truly embrace. Simon has given the actress who draws this straw a hard job. Trying to transfer the qualities of slovenly and headstrong Oscar to female Olive is not a simple equation. But Oscar did have a heart, and we never see that Olive credibly does.

Gallardo has discovered a much-more-grounded approach to Florence, and we can find a bit more sympathy for her. The cadre of Trivial Pursuit players, even though fairly well brought to life by the actresses, reveals how thin their presence in the play actually is. Their scenes pretty much scream "plot device," and Simon's choice of the game they play seems like almost an inside joke.

Although this production misses an opportunity to give us a deeper dimension in our connection with the story, it certainly makes the most of the scene in which the Spanish brothers who live upstairs come to dine with Florence and Olive. Dennis Gallardo as Manolo, and Brian Scott Hale as Jesus, are simply wonderful, utterly believable and unselfconsciously hilarious. They are immigrants from Barcelona, and their native Castilian Spanish is always on a collision course with the colloquial parlance of the New Yorkers. This is richly comic stuff, and these guys nail it.

This may not be the slickest Odd Couple you'll ever see, and if you require exquisite precision and sophistication in your theater, you might want to pass. But if you're willing to go with what you get, you may very well laugh, hoot, applaud and enjoy the heck out of it.

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