‘Odd Couple’ Sputters Then Sings

By Geary Danihy
Most theatergoers are familiar with the plot of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse. After its run on Broadway, the play was made into a movie and then became a long-running television show. Hence, there are no surprises – you know the characters; you know what’s going to happen; you probably even know many of the set-ups and punch lines. So, the question arises, why attend a performance? After all, it wasn’t penned by the Bard.

Well, the plot, though well known, is engaging and the characters – especially the two leads – have become almost iconic. You go because you want to see Oscar (Tony Rossi) and Felix (R. Bruce Connelly) go at it; you want to see the two interact; you go because what occurs between them speaks humorously (and loudly) to anyone who has ever been married.

So, if you need a dose of Oscar and Felix, then the Ivoryton production should meet all of your needs, for Rossi and Connelly play the two mismatched roommates to perfection. If you can’t wait for the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Laura Beth Wells) and Cecily (Eleanor Handley), to drop by for dinner, then you won’t be disappointed, for Wells and Handley are as “coo-coo” as you remember. However, if you’re going for the weekly poker game attended by Speed (Brian M. Cunningham), Murray (Al Mulvey), Roy (Mike Souney) and Vinnie (M. Carl Kaufman), then I suggest you host a game of your own, for the four actors don’t seem to mesh.

Unfortunately, all of the first act has the poker players on stage, and for those in the audience not aware of what awaits them in act two, a certain amount of ennui might set in. Perhaps director Lawrence Thelen has never anted up amongst a group of cronies, for though the four actors are supposed to be card-playing buddies of long standing their timing is off and there’s little electricity amongst them. Cunningham and Souney seem to understand what is called for, but the problem is exacerbated by how Thelen has allowed the other two actors, Mulvey and Kaufman, to play, or overplay, their roles. Where a soupcon of obtuseness might do, Mulvey gives us a gallon, and yes, the character Vinnie is a milquetoast, but Kaufman plays him as if he’s just escaped from a production of La Cage aux Folles.  I was waiting for Cunningham, as Speed, to jump up and whack him.

Fortunately, the first act is relatively short, and when the lights go up on Oscar’s now immaculate apartment (compliments of Felix, of course) at the start of the second act, the production shifts gears, for Rossi and Connelly work exceedingly well together. The comedic tension between the two is palpable as the “couple” begins to have problems, most of them generated by Felix’s neatness fetish.

Rossi is capable of providing the audience with a marvelous slow burn as he suffers under Felix’s ministrations, and Connelly’s pouting is picture-perfect. The high point of the evening is, of course, the dinner with the Pigeon sisters, and here the evening brightens even more, for Wells and Handley give the audience two brightly-plumed, brainless British “birds” to delight in. The extended scene, with Connelly in agony as the two sisters prattle on, is one you wish would go on forever.

One odd note is the set design by Dan Nischan. Oscar lives in an apartment in Manhattan, and even though it’s 1966, the rooms, with their dark wood and arches, seem to be of another era, perhaps the dining room and parlor of some New England boarding house circa 1890. And would the bachelor, a self-acknowledged slob, have so many sofa pillows – they seem incongruous in the apartment of a man inclined to decorate using dirty laundry. In all, the set seems more appropriate for a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The set and the poker players aside, Ivoryton’s Odd Couple delivers on enough levels, thanks to the work of Rossi, Connelly, Wells and Handley, to make the evening quite enjoyable. As you sit through the first act, just keep on reminding yourself that better things are coming.

The Odd Couple runs through Sunday, Aug. 30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

This review originally ran in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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