Tag Archives: Neil Simon

Climb Aboard a Retro Laugh Riot

Review: A highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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With the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly that Neil Simon and his esteemed stablemates – Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks – who all wrote for Sid Caesar during the early days of television, didn’t simply disperse into the realms of stand-up, movies, and theatre for the obvious practical reasons. Autonomy, fame, and fortune were surely enticing, but so was the satisfaction of working in longer forms than TV sketch comedy or a star comedian’s monologues.

Come back to The Odd Couple – or revisit Bananas and Zelig, A Funny Thing Happened and Tootsie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles – and we see a mature writer working beyond the limitations of zany characters and snappy one-liners. Simon develops his Oscar and Felix, tells a full-length story about them, and keeps the hilarity going. Entering Theatre Charlotte, where Jill Bloede is directing a highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be seeing this old cash cow so freshly.

Somehow the difference between this 1965 comedy and TV sitcoms of the same era – including the spinoff Odd Couple sitcom that came to ABC in 1970 – suddenly seemed rather radical. The cardinal rule for most 22-minute sitcom writers back then was to hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so that next week’s episode would start out as if this week’s had never happened. On Broadway, you could expect the uptight, neurotic, neat freak Felix to wear out his slovenly pal Oscar’s patience by the time the curtain came down. On TV? No way. Felix made himself at home in Oscar’s Manhattan apartment for nearly five seasons.

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Many in the sold-out house at the Queens Road barn on opening night were struck even more freshly by Felix, Oscar, their poker-night buddies, and the neighboring Pigeon Sisters. Unless the younger people in the house had been hooked on the Matthew Perry reincarnation of the sitcom during 2015-2017 on CBS, they likely hadn’t run into much Simon or Oscar in their lifetimes. I was a little taken aback when I came home, double-checked, and found that I’d only seen Odd Couple once in Charlotte during the last 30+ years, back in 2007 at CPCC.

On the other hand, this comedy staple had been quasi road-tested at Theatre Charlotte when the Female Version – with Florence, Olive and a klatch of Trivial Pursuit-playing women replacing the poker buddies – dropped by in the summer of 2012. Bloede also directed then, an overachievement that certainly warranted her current return engagement.

Whether it’s Lady Bracknell or Lucy Ricardo, Bloede knows her comedy, and she has prospected long enough in Charlotte to be able to mine its finest talent. Doesn’t look like she had to twist any arms, either. For her Oscar, she landed the most experienced Simon exponent in town, Brian Lafontaine. Breaking in to Charlotte theatre in 1992-1994, Lafontaine played leads in three of Simon’s comedies, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Queens Road – and Lost in Yonkers at Charlotte Rep.

Bloede goes edgier and high-energy for her Felix with Mark Scarboro, who first carved out his eccentric niche in 2001-02 with standout performances in Thumbs, The Pitchfork Disney, and Fuddy Meers. Yet Bloede has Lafontaine playing the 43-year-old Oscar with more energy than I’ve ever seen from this slovenly New York Post sportswriter. If she’s going to turn Scarboro loose to be as anal, neurotic, outré, and irritating as he can imagine Felix to be, then she’s returning the favor to Lafontaine and turning him loose to be as irritated, provoked, and out-of-control as he can imagine a devout 44-year-old slob can be.

No less pleasurable is the build-up to Felix’s first entrance. That’s because Bloede has a deep bench sitting around Oscar’s dining room poker table, supporting her stars. If we’re returning to Odd Couple, we’re likely surprised to find that Felix isn’t going to show up until we’re 17 pages into the script. Even Oscar isn’t onstage at the outset in his own apartment! Simon’s poker preamble steadily stokes concern for fragile Felix’s welfare in the wake of his breakup with his wife, but there’s already hostility and comedy shtick at the table before the two marquee combatants show up.

Just watch Michael Corrigan and Patrick Keenan at work, sparring as Murray and Speed, and you’ll see that Bloede has selected a second comedy team for us to revel in, very much in the same Felix-Oscar, Laurel-Hardy template. Decades ago, when Corrigan was younger and slimmer, he tended to remind you of Tim Conway. So the particular quirks of Murray the policeman come to readily to Corrigan, his exasperating slowness in shuffling cards and his alarmist reactions to any new news about Felix. Keenan is the master of the slow burn and the bellowing explosion, repeatedly supplying perfect exclamation points to punctuate the comedy.

Tall and lanky Matt Olin is the perfect choice for the spineless Vinnie, the guy Murray and Speed can both agree to pick on, the dutiful husband who submits to his wife’s curfew, and the man who deeply appreciates Felix’s sissy sandwiches. Meanwhile, Lee Thomas continues to ply his teddy bear charm as Oscar’s diffident, occasionally witty accountant, Roy.

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If you’re worried that Bloede might be taking PC pains to update the Pigeon Sisters and present them as more evolved, rest easy. Vanessa Davis as Gwendolyn and Johanna Jowett as Cecily stay true to their origins, Davis the flirtier sister and Jowett the more empathetic bleeding heart. Set designer Rick Moll, costumer Yvette Moten, and sound designer Rick Wiggins have all climbed aboard Theatre Charlotte’s retro train. With a soundtrack that includes James Brown, Petula Clark, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert, and The Shirelles, Bloede and her all-pro cast are bent on taking you back to the ‘60s, like it or not. I’m betting you’ll like it.

Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of Chapter Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.Chapter Two 4

George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

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A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

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Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.