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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Three at ACT

Seattle's A Contemporary Theater is currently playing with a full house. In the past week, three new shows have taken residence there, filling all three of its spaces.

The first show to open was a production of Neil Simon's 35-year-old classic play, The Odd Couple. Would you believe that somehow I have managed to avoid seeing this show in any of its incarnations? I have never seen it on stage, nor have I seen either the film version or the sitcom that it spawned. Nonetheless, I am well acquainted with the characters and storyline, as they have become as much a part of American folklore as Betsy Ross, Jesse James, and Superman: ultra-slob Oscar Madison and uber-neatnik Felix Unger move in together and mix about as well as extra virgin olive oil and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

The Odd Couple
John Procaccino and R. Hamilton Wright
Photo: Chris Benion
Unfortunately, the production at ACT gives little indication of why this show has become so ingrained in our psyches. It may simply be due to the fact that what was once titillating and cute in 1965 just does not have the same impact in 2000. Today, in the age of Will and Grace and Love! Valor! Compassion!, two men living together and calling each other by various husband/wife terminologies, no matter how mockingly or sarcastic, just does not provoke the same reactions. The humor in The Odd Couple is dependent on the two of them being perceived as two very straight men in a comic situation, and it is best served by playing the comedy in broad, comic strokes. Unfortunately, the show was played with an abundance of late 1990s psychological realism and does not come across as a 1960s comic period piece.

The main offender here is John Procaccino who plays Oscar Madison as if he were doing a Bill Murray impersonation. He portrays Oscar as if he were a slovenly Peter Pan who never grew up and is not remotely likeable; it is a wonder why his poker buddies even put up with him. The concept that he and Felix would be best friends is unthinkable, as there is no sense of history between them. As Felix Unger, R. Hamilton Wright appears to be an ulcer waiting to happen, as befits the image of a man who is clenched right up to his hair. However, without the appropriate energy and feedback from Oscar, he overcompensates and comes across as artificial.

The show does not take off and display any truly funny moments until the overdue introduction of the delightful Pigeon sisters. Liz McCarthy (Cecily) and Katie Forgette (Gwendolyn) swoop onto the set and provide the energy and color that was woefully lacking for the first half of the show. Personally, I wish ACT had decided to put on the female version of the show and cast them as Felix and Oscar.

Meanwhile, in the intimate Bullit Space, Christmas has come a few months early and let me tell you, Santa has left quite the delightful present there. Celebrated NPR commentator/humorist Kevin Kling is starring in his one-man show, From the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log, which despite its ungainly title, is one of the most entertaining shows I have seen in a while. Seattle has been host to a plethora of one-person shows this year, and Kevin's ranks among the best, rivaling Lily Tomlin's Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe for its wry observational humor.

The show starts with a recording of Liberace gushing over his audience with the Pope and treating us to a rendition of the Rosary on piano. Kevin joins in on tuba, letting us know from the start that we are in for an evening that is more A Christmas Story than A Wonderful Life. Dressed in clashing flannel pajamas and robe, Kevin spends most of the evening in an easy chair regaling us with stories from his life in Minnesota. In a wry but never cynical manner, Kevin shares his memories and observations of Christmases with the family, battles on the playground, and living with a disability. While never descending into the maudlin, he manages to intersperse his intelligent humor with some very astute observations on life and the human condition. This man is a natural storyteller and it was a delight to spend an evening with him.

Down the hall from Kevin, another one-person show is taking place. Five time Tony winner Julie Harris has returned to Seattle with her ode to Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst (which, incidentally, premiered in Seattle's Moore Theater in 1976). Based on the life and poems of Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst is a moving portrait of a self-professed eccentric spinster, who just happened to be one of this country's most incredible poets. Written by William Luce and directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, the show won a Tony for Julie Harris, as well as a Grammy for the recorded album of the play.

The Odd Couple
Julie Harris
Photo: Ed Krieger
The Belle of Amherst is less a drama than a remembrance piece. This is not a show with dramatic fireworks or deep personal revelations. Instead, it resembles an evening spent having tea with your favorite eccentric great-aunt; the one who never had children but was always great with them, being childlike herself. When she first played Emily Dickinson, Julie Harris was close to the age she portrays in the play. Today, she is older than Emily ever had the fortune of being, as Emily died of Bright's disease at 56, and this causes the only misstep of the evening. The show opens with Emily mentioning that she is in her 50's, which is obviously not the case with Julie (who is reported to be 75), and I wish they had cut that line. A few years ago I saw a production of The Belle of Amherst starring an actress in her 50's. Her portrayal was that of a woman in the middle of life looking back at the past; somebody who still had a lot of energy and a great deal to look forward to. In Julie's current stage of life, Emily has become somebody nearing the end of life who is looking back; sometimes with regret, often times with pride, many times reliving the events and becoming a part of them again. It made for a truly poignant evening filled with magical moments, and Julie Harris is absolutely incredible in it.

The Odd Couple and From the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log run through October 29th. The Belle of Amherst runs through November 5th. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster, the ACT box office or their website, www.acttheatre.org.




- Jonathan Frank



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