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Chicago by John Olson

The Odd Couple
Raven Theatre

The Odd Couple
Eric Roach and Jon Steinhagen
Given this company's mission of presenting American classics, one has to consider their production of The Odd Couple a case for the play as such a classic. Certainly the comedy's success and imprint on American entertainment are undeniable, having spawned a hit film version and long-running network TV series. How many Broadway plays have done that? And, arguably, it cemented author Neil Simon's reputation as a reliable writer of hit comedies, launching his career as one of Broadway's most prolific and successful playwrights. But is it a classic? I'm not so sure. It's a little hard to accept the premise as Simon wrote it. When slob Oscar invites neat-freak Felix to move in with him following their divorces, tension between the two is certain as many a friendship has failed to survive a stint as roommates. But wouldn't Oscar, who's been living in filth and eating stale, moldy food, somewhat appreciate the cleanliness and especially the cooking of Felix? At least enough to put up with Felix's obsessive cleaning? I mean, who doesn't really prefer cleanliness and order even if they're not willing to put in the work to do it themselves? Simon doesn't really get beyond surface level in exploring this, but he does deliver the snappy one-liners for which he became famous. You have to ask, though, how many times one can laugh at jokes like Oscar's description of Felix as so anxious and controlling that he keeps his seat-belt fastened at a drive-in movie?

That said, the jokes are still pretty funny for those who don't remember them from seeing earlier productions or the film, and it does gives us two great comic characters in Oscar and Felix. The roles may require better comedians than we get in this production, though. While Greg Roach and Jon Steinhagen give decent performances, it might be best to see this piece in the hands of star-quality comedians, since it is really all about the laughs. Roach makes a good rough and tumble sportswriter, though he seems to be working a little too hard at it and doesn't really quite get at the core of his character. Steinhagen is a little too nuanced, if that's possible. We really see Felix's anguish over losing his wife, but we empathize with him a little too much to let us laugh at him.

The supporting cast is terrific, though, particularly Brigitte Ditmars and Liz Fletcher as the Pigeon sisters, Oscar's British neighbors whose double-date with Oscar and Felix goes unexpectedly. They're convincingly sexy and flirtatious, out-there but not over the top. There's good character work from the men playing Oscar and Felix's poker buddies as well (Greg Caldwell, Larry Cabrani, Greg Kolack and Anthony Tournis).

Director Michael Menendian's production also does a great job of recreating the period (a necessity, I guess, in a play with a joke about drive-in movie theaters). Ray Toler's set is a realistic depiction of a rambling Upper West Side apartment, and it's filled with artifacts compiled by Mary O'Dowd that include LP record jackets, Life magazines and a mid-century TV set.

Simon may not have known it at the time, but The Odd Couple catches a transitional moment in U.S. society. Oscar, Felix and their poker-playing buddies grew up in a world where the genders pretty much stayed in their own corners and "loose" women like the Pigeon sisters held a special appeal. When Oscar and Felix's wives show they could get along without them, that fraternal system starts to fray. The change in gender roles will became more dramatic in a few years after the action of this play. Mendendian's setting of this in that historical context is almost a good enough revisit for those familiar with the piece to revisit it. Mostly, though, it may be most fun for those who know The Odd Couple only from the TV series, or who are new to it.

The Odd Couple will be performed through July 18, 2010, at the Raven Theatre, 6156 N. Clark, Chicago. Tickets and information are available at www.raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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