Chesapeake Arts Center's production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple is nicely timed in view of the recent news that the playwright, who turns 79 on July 4, will receive the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October at the Kennedy Center.
One of the playwright's earliest successes, the 1965 Broadway hit comedy can seem an over-roasted old chestnut or a pleasant comic standard, depending on the production. Chesapeake Art Center's version may be a little of both, mostly succeeding despite our over-familiarity with protagonists Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar.
Some of us met Oscar and Felix when they were definitively portrayed by Walter Matthau (reprising his Broadway role) and Jack Lemmon in the 1968 film. Later, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall defined Oscar and Felix for a television audience in a series that ran on ABC from 1970 until 1975 and continues to air in syndication.
This formidable acting quartet has cast long shadows on anyone now playing the roles, as evidenced by the mixed reviews given the phenomenally popular Broadway revival starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick that closed this month. Critics complained that Broderick didn't seem rumpled or middle-aged enough to play Felix, and that the Lane-Broderick team lacked believability.
Chesapeake Art's production is directed by Jobie Watson, who mostly chooses to play the piece straight, probably a wise choice, despite dated aspects of the 40-year-old comedy like the "expensive" $7 roast that serves four. Once-clever dialogue now often lacks zing, although many sharp one-liners retain their edge.
The production's opening poker game sometimes drags, probably as a result of Oscar's poker cronies being saddled with dated, often sexist dialogue. Still, fine ensemble actor Pat McPartlin as Murray the Cop breathes life into his lines. Tom Rendulic is amusing as accountant Roy, Robert Scott Hitcho is the nervous Vinnie and Sid Curl is constantly complaining Speed. Together the group tries to maintain a lively pace.
The crucial element is the quality of the performances of the actors playing Oscar and Felix. Chesapeake's production gives us an interesting pairing that mostly succeeds. Leanto Jones plays Oscar as the warm-hearted slob who is uproariously short on patience. Jones gives a highly charged, physical performance that is most effective in the second and third acts, when it is called for. However, Jones' super-charged performance sometimes seems over the top and loud.
Mike Styer's low-key portrayal of Felix is generally on the mark, and he is especially amusing when dealing with hypochondriac Felix's many physical ailments and depression. His compulsive neatness becomes sufficiently annoying to arouse audience sympathy for Oscar.
Looking like 1960s swingers, Anya Randall Nebel plays Gwendolyn Pigeon and Mahoghany plays Cecily - the English sisters who are Oscar's neighbors. Although their English accents are not always convincing, they add fun to their scenes. Like Jones' Oscar, Nebel's Gwendolyn can be too loud in her delivery, but she has the giggling and crying down pat.
Laughs came often at Sunday's performance, and the contrast between these totally opposite roommates continues to provide entertaining theater.
The Odd Couple continues tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Chesapeake Arts Center's Studio Theatre at 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park.