Comedy is all about timing, and the timing of director T.J. Charlson and executive producer Jim Caron couldn’t have been better in bringing Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple to MCT in the middle of a Missoula winter. Set in Oscar Madison’s bright yellow New York City apartment during a sweltering 1964 July, the three-act play moves with sitcom speed and reminds you what a release it can be to laugh at clean, smart jokes.
We all know the story: Sloppy, boisterous divorcé Oscar Madison takes in his friend, fragile type-A neatnik Felix Unger, after Felix’s wife Francis announces she wants a divorce. Together the two mismatched roommates negotiate bachelorhood and family, potato-chip crumbs and marked differences in personal hygiene, often to hilarious effect.
Viewers of a certain age will remember The Odd Couple as one of two things: the 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, or the 1970s TV show starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. What’s refreshing about MCT’s production is that strong performances from Brien Sankey (Oscar) and Don Kukla (Felix) keep you from conjuring images of Lemmon and Matthau or Randall and Klugman throughout the play; this production stands on its own. It’s tempting to compare the play’s humor to the “all about nothing” jokes of “Seinfeld,” or the clever hanging-out-in-a-NYC-apartment banter of “Friends.” But Simon’s language is tighter than sitcom fare, and many of his jokes are laced with a thoughtfulness that elevates the humor.
“You make the same sound for pain and happiness,” Oscar says to Felix while trying to massage a spastic muscle in Felix’s neck. Then, impatient with Felix’s pouting, he says, “There are 100,000 divorces a year—there must be something nice about it.”
Do pain and happiness have something in common? Does the pain of divorce also include a sliver of happiness? You don’t dwell on these questions for long; you’re too busy laughing. But when Felix looks out Oscar’s 12th-story window and says, “I’m not going to jump, I’m just going to breathe,” you do appreciate the depth that Simon’s language lends to slapstick.
Good language is nothing without good delivery, and this cast has its delivery down. The poker-playing buddies played by Todd Mowbray (Speed), Richard Allegra (Murray), Paul Ronaldo (Roy) and Robert Harsch (Vinnie), are distinctive characters whose collective energy builds each sequence of jokes toward a laugh-out-loud crescendo. The exaggerated facial expressions and gestures of Allegra and Harsch, in particular, seem to strike the audience’s funny bone.
But it’s the body language and the tangible chemistry between Kukla and Sankey that steal the show. Perhaps Kukla’s experience directing a previous MCT run of The Odd Couple in 1985 gives him such a knack for the part: He embodies Felix’s neuroses so completely that some of his funniest moments are unspoken. When he stomps circles around Oscar’s living room wearing a frilly waist apron, his shoulders up to his ears and one arm straight up spraying deodorizer, the audience roars. The tiny whine and wince he makes when Oscar puts his feet on the coffee table; the manner in which he sits hunched and morose, cradling his overcooked dinner; the way he turns his face red at each muscle pain or hygienic infraction…Kukla as Felix is flat-out funny.
Where Kukla’s body language is tense and tight, Sankey’s is loose and messy. As Kukla threatens to become a nagging wifey, Sankey errs toward embarrassing playboy. Sure, there are moments when the snipes hit the same notes over and over—neat versus messy, anal versus irresponsible—but there’s no denying that watching these two is just plain fun.
When Oscar decides to invite two women from the building over for dinner, once again it’s Kukla’s body language that gets the laughs. Sandwiched on Oscar’s couch between the towering, fashionable sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, played respectively by Tricia Opstad and Rachel Cahill, the sniffling Kukla looks like he might get swallowed. Opstad and Cahill bring with them more of the exaggerated humor that works so well among the poker players; it works here, too, though the women’s British accents sound somewhat forced.
But an imperfect accent, like a flubbed line or two, ultimately does not detract much from this show. From the vintage ’60s outfits by costume designer Susan Marquand to set details like the clunky old phone from set designer Joseph Welles, the ingredients for a good night’s entertainment are all here. A more believable sense of why Oscar would want Felix as a roommate in the first place would have smoothed over the one plot distraction, but that’s an issue to take up with the playwright, and ultimately not one that makes or breaks good comedy.
And this is good comedy. This is a fun evening out. This is a highly entertaining way to come in from the cold and enjoy a cast that is well warmed-up.
The Odd Couple runs Jan. 26–30 at the MCT Community Theatre. Performances are Thur.–Sat. at 8 PM, Sun. at 6:30 PM., with Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. Tickets are $14-$18. Call 728-7529.