HURON — Ahhhhhh ... Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
Where have I heard that title before?
It’s been so long since I’ve seen slob Oscar Madison and neatnik Felix Ungar.
And so, seeing one of beloved playwright Neil Simon’s most popular and well-known plays on Tuesday at the Huron Playhouse was a little like seeing a friend you haven’t seen in ages. You’ve seen him countless times and you’re as familiar with his peculiar idiosyncrasies as you are with your own habits. Yet you expect that due to the time that’s elapsed, you’ll encounter an all-new, fresh face.
But when you two finally meet up again, he’s as familiar — in not such a good way — as though you two never parted.
The one-liners were so ingrained in my head, I found myself anticipating them ... and not laughing after their delivery.
No question, Simon’s had an illustrious Broadway career, he’s long been known as royalty when it comes to the one-liner and he’s gifted in his observation of human nature, foibles and all, as seen in his ironic, witty writing.
But “The Odd Couple” isn’t among his best works.
Simon’s plays find themselves in that company which include the Pulitzer-Prize Winning “Lost in Yonkers,” a potent mix of humor and pathos. One can also find that combination in Simon’s autobiographical plays.
“The Odd Couple” carries a relevant message about learning something from and changing as a result of being around someone completely different than you. Beyond that, there’s little depth or complexity of character in the play. And some of the one-liners may have seemed hilarious when the play opened on Broadway in 1965, starring Walter Matthau as Madison and Art Carney as Ungar. The hilarity may have continued with the 1968 film starring Matthau in the title role and Jack Lemmon as Ungar and then the TV sitcom from 1970-1975 with Jack Klugman as Madison and Tony Randall as Ungar.
Today, though, some of the one-liners seem as stale as the food Madison has likely kept in his New York City apartment (designed spaciously by Dominic DeRiso) for who knows how long.
“Twelve years doesn’t make you a happy couple; it just makes you a long couple,” one of the supporting characters quips in the aftermath of Ungar’s divorce.
There were times, during The Playhouse’s production, a valiant effort but with aspects it could improve upon, when the audience laughed heartily.
But when Ungar and Madison are on non-talking terms and the slob tells his friend not to clean because “I’m not through dirtying up for tonight,” I didn’t hear any laughs.
Sure, there are funnier lines: “It took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar,” Madison tells him regarding a note Ungar left with his initials.
In this production, the wry humor is delivered impressively, especially by Dereis Lambert as Madison and a talented supporting cast.
But as directed by Michael Taylor Gray, the comic timing needs work; the production moves too fast for some of the funny material to really register. It’s almost played like a farce, which “The Odd Couple” isn’t, relying on wry humor and some slapstick to make us laugh.
Credit the cast for not trying to mimic performances by renown actors.
But one could depart too far from a character’s personality. When the show opens, Lambert appears a bit too rushed, wary and nervous as Madison, as opposed to happy-go-lucky, slovenly and carefree. The nervous energy in the beginning could wear an actor playing Oscar out, so that there’s no room for him to grow into an unhappy, angry, exasperated man whose life has been turned upside down by Ungar.
That’s not the case here, though, as Lambert’s Oscar has plenty of hostility left toward Ungar during the latter parts of the play. Still, the loose, happy, carefree Oscar needs to show up in Lambert’s performance.
Zac Roetter has tense body language and a high-pitched, whiny but lovable voice as Ungar. Roetter is especially effective when he’s stuck with the British Pigeon sisters (a vivacious, silly, Katherine Jones and Grace Wipfli). In these scenes, Roetter’s Ungar is the kind of lovable, nervous man with whom such young women would want to cuddle up.
I’m not inclined to cuddle up to “The Odd Couple” as much as some of the audience members seemed willing to do on opening night.
But that hardly means you shouldn’t come and enjoy an escapist, light-hearted show by a hard working Huron Playhouse company that could use all the support it can get.
Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalk reflector.com.