I’d say it’s a safe bet not many theaters crane their neck out for reinvention when it comes to staging Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Originality is almost a moot point with certain iconic works—and that’s certainly the case with Simon’s 1965 play, where the cleanly defined characters, steady dialogue patterns, and midcentury Manhattan milieu are well established. No one would mistake The Odd Couple for an adventurous play, but trying to shake it up risks knocking the carefully constructed droll rhythm all out of whack.
Village Theatre’s production of the play, on stage through March 25, attempts no such disruptions, and emerges with a handsome, inevitably crowd-pleasing staging that is nonetheless hermetically sealed within an inch of its life. Odd Couple purists (does this play inspire that much passion?) will be satisfied, but the show’s coasting on the comfort of familiarity is enervating, despite the sharp work all around.
Naturally, the shadow of Walter Matthau looms large over any production of the play, as he originated the role of divorced slob Oscar Madison on Broadway and in Gene Saks’ film adaptation. Charles Leggett’s Oscar here isn’t an outright imitation, but his hangdog exasperation will dredge up instant sense memories. Chris Ensweiler’s performance as neat-freak Felix Ungar is less reminiscent of a specific performer, but there’s little sense of spontaneity in his litany of nervous tics.
Leggett and Ensweiler are winning, engaging performers, but there’s no getting around the fact that these characters have been drawn with perfectly diametric opposite personalities. The Odd Couple owes its classic status to Simon’s effortless back-and-forth, not to any subtleties of narrative or characterization. Add to that the fact that the show will forever be associated with indelible performances, and invention and nuance essentially become lost causes.
What does stand out in Village’s production is the swell scenic design by Martin Christoffel. With the play set entirely in Oscar’s apartment, Christoffel evokes both a sense of disheveled disintegration in Oscar’s progressively filthy version and a stripped-to-the-bone sterility in Felix’s, using largely the same props in the same space.
Village Theatre’s production of The Odd Couple runs through Feb. 26 at its Issaquah location before moving to Everett for a run from March 2 through March 25. Tickets are available for purchase at Village’s website.
Photo by Jay Koh