After Snowpocalypse postponed opening night, I went to see Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple at Issaquah’s Village Theatre (tickets now through February 26 at the Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and March 2–25 at the Everett Performing Arts Center). Until now, my exposure to the Odd Couple franchise was limited to the TV show from the early ’70s, and, as someone who is sort of, um, tidy, I always identified with Felix. But at this production, I found myself surprisingly identifying with Oscar. Or at the very least I was Oscar-curious.
Directed by Seattle theatre vet Jeff Steitzer, this play is all about timing. As sportswriter Oscar Madison, Charles Leggett is masterful about delivering his lines with a dry, perfectly-timed style that showed he could be the character and at the same time get out of the character’s way. Part of the enduring nature of this play–which premiered in 1965 and has been in production ever since–is the brilliance of the writing. The cast as a whole trusted this and resisted the temptation to make bits bigger or jokier. They played it straight and didn’t try to overdeliver the comedy. With a play this tested, it was a wise choice.
So why did I find myself in Oscar this time? I think because of Leggett’s decision to make Oscar more than a mere caricature. It’s also a testament to his skill as an actor. For example, when Felix complains that he strained his throat while humming to clear his ears, Oscar’s cutting “Why don’t you leave yourself alone?” is both mocking, and delivered by Leggett, oddly caring. Leggett’s Oscar centered around the idea that the people we love can drive us crazy, but we still love them. That conflict came through in his performance and resonated. With me anyway.
Chris Ensweiler’s Felix Ungar was less about nuance and more about comedy. Where Leggett was about subtlety–even when screaming, if that makes sense–Ensweiler went for the laughs. It’s not a criticism; the play probably works best when someone goes big. And when you consider the many well-known actors who have played the role (Martin Short, Art Carney, Billy Crystal, Matthew Broderick, and, oh yes, Pat Sajak), it’s easy to see that you need that kind of foil if you are going to get the humanity out of Oscar. Ensweiler is a skilled physical comedian, and this is evident in big ways and small. When sitting alone with the British Pigeon sisters, his body language makes you feel how desperately uncomfortable he is.
The realistic apartment set by scenic designer Martin Christoffel looked great. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong. Again, the Village gives us a top-notch production.