You have to hand it to Neil Simon-the man knows how to write a joke and his gags are nonpareil-and, if you need further evidence of that fact, you need look no further than the current revival of The Odd Couple at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Somehow, after countless versions of the classic comedy have been mounted all over the world, director Martha Wilkinson manages to give the old comic warhorse new legs with her fresh take that remains faithful to the master without being bound to the script's specific dictates.
In fact, Wilkinson's new and fresh version of The Odd Couple comes down to one thing: Casting. Sure, Oscar is still a slovenly and slobby, even if quick-witted, mess, and Felix is an effete fussbudget (and, if I were a psychologist, I could have a field day with all the subtext going on in that hot NYC apartment in the mid-1960s), but their friends seem different thanks to the director's choice of actor for each role.
As a result, the story of two divorced men (well, one is divorced, the other is in a pre-divorce holding pattern) takes on a completely different feel. As one woman remarked to me before showtime, "It's the best-looking group of poker players you've ever seen in Oscar Madison's apartment." Or words to that effect.
Who knew that The Odd Couple, of all shows, could be the source of eye candy for its audience? Truth is, my friends, stranger than fiction.
Simon's classic play is brought to life with charm and good humor and Wilkinson's requisite attention to detail. In many ways, you feel as if you've been whisked away in some confoudingly efficient time machine to the mid-1960s so evocative is the set design, costumes and ambience created by the Chaffin's Barn creative team.
Although Act One seemed to move at a slow pace on opening night, we can ascribe that to first night jitters and miscues, which seems far more likely when compared to the relatively good pacing of the rest of the evening. Perhaps it was the oppressive heat (during the first act, midsummer city heat was palpable, thanks to the actors and their focus) and the trash and refuse that littered the floor of Oscar's man cave that slowed down the plot's progress.
Derek Whittaker, fresh off his triumphant run as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, takes on the part of sportswriter Oscar with his expert timing and his unerring ability to take any potential lemon and deliver some thirst-quenching tart, tangy and sweet lemonade. Case in point: on opening night, there were all manner of unexpected phenomena taking place onstage and the capable and confident Whittaker acted like it was just another day at the office and made the most of the nearly collapsing poker table and the falling costars who found themselves slipping in so much spilt beer. While the ensemble could have slipped down the slope to Carol Burnett Show self-referential laughter, they remained largely in control, resulting in all the more laughter for the audience.
Charlie Winton, as Felix, delivers a performance that is just as strong as Whittaker (both men are given plenty of opportunities to shine in Simon's cleverly crafted script), evoking memories of Jack Lemmon's original film performance in the same role. The interplay between Winton and Whittaker remains sharp and witty, ensuring a good time will be had by all.
Wilkinson's fresh take on casting is most assuredly felt in her choices for the pair's poker-playing buddies. Lane Wright is outstanding as Vinnie, eliciting laughs with the most subtle of facial expressions and his lumbering gait. Daniel (M.F.) Bissell shows off his own comic chops as the acerbic and churlish Speed, relaying his hilarious lines with deft skill while wearing some of designer Hannah Schmidt's most stylish 1960s duds.
Alan Smith, playing Oscar's accountant Roy, lends further credibility to any future claim he might make on the title of "the funniest actor in Nashville." Smith's acting skills are laudable, but he is able to create moments of physical comedy that are supremely funny and somehow unexpected.
Wilkinson's most astonishing decision, in the realm of "casting against type" comes in the person of Jeremy Maxwell (one of the most intense actors to be found on a Nashville stage) who displays his own ease with a comic turn of phrase while giving us an entirely different version of Murray, the cop. Needless to say, Maxwell represents the young, hot Murray you may never have expected to find onstage if your only vision of the character is the pear-shaped, sad-eyed and neurotic character from the iconic television sitcom.