To be honest, I was dreading it.
Even though the Indio Performing Arts Center is the most comfortable theater in town (the angle of the rake for the audience area guarantees that every cushy seat gives perfect visibility; it has lots of leg room; and there are cup-holders like at the movies!), the ghastly fact is this: Neil Simon’s comedy The Odd Couple just doesn’t hold up in today’s world. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, his kooky characters and their navel-gazing were fresh, original and fun (despite their smoking, ewww). Frankly, I hadn’t realized how much comedy had changed with the times until we tried to watch reruns of Laugh-In a couple of years ago, and we all sat staring stone-faced and unamused instead of rolling on the floor and shrieking like we did back in the day. Many attempts to re-do Neil Simon’s work, some even with major stars, have bombed horribly in today’s world, because of those changes in comedy since this play opened in 1965.
But the Palm Desert Stage Company comes through!
Cozy in their new home at IPAC, Colleen Kelley’s troupe is directed by the uber-talented Jeanette Knight (one of the calmest directors you could ever work with) and gives us a delightful version of The Odd Couple that never wanes in its energy or quality. Did they tinker with the script? Who knows or cares? This production of the show works.
Of course, the first problem they faced was erasing the audience’s memories of the film version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, two genius comic actors with an enormous arsenal of techniques that made their movie unforgettable. But this production comes through, again, with their clever casting choices. Lou Galvan as Oscar Madison, and Matthew Shaker as Felix Ungar, look and behave nothing like Matthau and Lemon, and therein lies the secret of this success. Where Matthau was a slob and a sloth, Galvan is an intense mess who’s too high-energy to bother taking care of his surroundings (and a sports writer to add to the problem). Where Lemmon was an obsessive and whiny little wreck, Shaker is totally sympathetic as a just-dumped husband and father desperately trying to put his life in order by organizing the environment around him to hopefully stave off his falling apart within.
These two actors beautifully contrast each other. Their physical appearances, first of all—the result of clever casting—instantly put the “odd” in the title. But as actors, they go beyond that, to shrewdly create gestures and moves different from each other. Watch the way they use their eyes. Watch Shaker sniff. Watch Galvan throw a tantrum of frustration. Even though their relationship is at odds, they each create a perfect marriage of technique and method acting. Bravo!
Though it’s basically a two-person play, the fun is multiplied by the supporting actors. The poker players, from the start of the first scene, make us wish they had way more lines, because each performance here is fully imagined. Peter Mins, as the accountant Roy, is delightful as an observer of the human condition who has learned to keep his mouth shut. Vinnie, played by Charles Williams Gaines, is great as the guy who is everybody’s friend. Alan Berry plays Speed (a nickname which is never explained, alas), a bright light who is focused and serious about everything from poker to being a Manhattanite. And the ever-versatile and brilliant Ron Young is Murray the Cop, whose tough New York street-smarts contrast with his ham-fisted card -ealing and his insatiable appetite for comfort food.
But the girls! You can’t take your eyes off them, and not just because The Pigeon Sisters are so pretty and brightly dressed in contrast to the men. Debbie Apple as Cecily, and Colleen Kelley as Gwendolyn (names clearly stolen from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest) are delicious and fluttery and sweet and colorful; these two fine actresses could actually pass as sisters. They have worked hard on subtleties such as their head movements and their matching smiles. Of course, their similarity sharply contrasts the differences between Oscar and Felix. Their performances include an underlying layer of predatory yet breezy sexuality that makes them a little dangerous. Their British accents are perfect choices. We can’t get enough of them. If they appeared for the first time in today’s world, they’d have their own TV show immediately.
The set and costumes and props—all created by Colleen Kelley (with help from efficient Nick Cox and John Meyers)—give vague references to the ’60s, but without making the production “dated.” It’s a perfect balance to the acting styles, and the result is a comfortably universal feeling that doesn’t scream “period piece,” despite some excellent touches in the Madison apartment’s décor, like that clock.
Hard-working Colleen Kelley’s relentless promotion resulted in a truly packed house on Saturday, without a single seat left available. (Technically, this creates an interesting experience known as “polarization,” which causes the audience to react as one unit. It rarely happens in a scattered crowd. It’s what every producer of a comedy prays for, because each laugh’s timing and duration become identical, like a bullfight crowd’s “ole.”) This audience roared at the comedy—and Neil Simon held up just fine, thank heavens.
If you can get a ticket, you’ll be grateful. We’re already wondering if they will extend the run so everyone can get to see this play at IPAC, and maybe finally overcome their strange doubts about theater in Indio. It’s a showplace to love arguably Neil Simon’s best work ever, and a totally enjoyable experience as presented here. Just see it.
The Odd Couple, a presentation of Palm Desert Stage, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday. Nov. 23, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $28, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.