Two's a Crowd

The lead actors carry the show in Live Theatre Workshop's 'Odd Couple.'

"The Odd Couple" is not yet as stale as the potato chips and old socks scattered around Oscar Madison's poker table. One of Neil Simon's more durable plays, it still generates laughs after some 35 years, despite its undercurrent of misogyny and its shallow main characters; if this were a pool, we'd be up to our ankles in complexity. We ought to have waded into the deeper end of comedy by now, but something keeps us clinging to The Odd Couple. Maybe it's the fun of the chemistry between the two leads; when Oscar the slob takes Felix the obsessively tidy hypochondriac into his home, there's a chemical reaction, all right, and Felix is all too ready to mop up the mess.

Chemistry is the selling point of Live Theatre Workshop's production of the play. As old pals turned embattled roommates through the inconvenience of divorce, James Mitchell Gooden (Felix) and Tom Potter (Oscar) smolder and fizz through all their scenes together, and that constitutes most of the show.

The one potentially fatal error of this production is resurrecting Neal Hefti's catchy theme tune from the 1968 movie version of the play and its five-season TV counterpart. That keeps calling to mind the classic Odd Couple parings, Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau and Tony Randall/Jack Klugman. Can Gooden and Potter hold their own against such competition?

The answer is a strong yes. Gooden comes to this play with a strong personality of his own, which he grafts naturally onto the anal-retentive, theatrically suffering Felix. Potter seems to have poured a big, gloppy helping of Klugman into his portrayal of Oscar, but he looks enough like Rodney Dangerfield to distract us from any direct comparisons; we never get the feeling that he's Tom Potter playing Jack Klugman playing Oscar Madison.

Felix and Oscar are so severely flawed that it's no mystery why their wives dumped them, yet both Gooden and Potter find just enough sweetness and good will in their characters that it's also no mystery how they attracted wives in the first place.

If there is a problem with this production, directed by Elizabeth Gooden, it's the labored repartee among Oscar's four poker buddies. These actors are quite fine--especially Mike Kirwin as the belligerent Speed and Tony Eckstat as an unusually dreamy Murray--but every line follows a brief pause, as if this were a Stanley Kubrick movie. That's the way conversation works in real life, but on stage, banter like this needs to keep the audience ducking from dangerously ricocheting comebacks. Here, the measured pace makes Simon seem to work too hard at writing funny lines.

Things pick up irresistibly in the play's second half with the arrival of the Pigeon sisters, dotty neighbors Oscar invites to an ill-fated dinner. Holli Thenhaus and Maryannn Green play the English sisters not just as latter-day Betty Boops, as a line in the script suggests, but as scampering, giggling, squeaky mice straight out of the Disney version of Cinderella. And sure enough, they prove to be the agents through whom the miserable Felix finally gets ready to have a ball.

Yet even as they wiggle through the cracks of credibility, Thenhaus and Green bring a touch of humanity to their characters, too. You can tell from the way they glance at each other that these silly sisters are desperate for male company, and are trying very hard--way too hard--to make a lively impression on Oscar and Felix.

If the men's poker scenes had this much verve, Live Theatre Workshop's version of The Odd Couple would be a complete, rollicking success. As things stand, it's only a partial, amusing success, but a success nonetheless.