by Michael Bowen

The timing of Civic Theater's current experiment in producing both versions of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple has proved fortuitous: with the loss of Walter Matthau a year ago and the death of Jack Lemmon just last week, what better time to commemorate their comedic inventiveness than with some lazy, hazy, crazy, summertime stage antics? It's been nearly 30 years, moreover, since the other duo associated with the original version of the play -- Jack Klugman and Tony Randall -- toured their production right into our own Opera House back in the early '70s.

If taking joy in one's craft leads to quality work, the Civic's dual presentations of The Odd Couple should join the tradition as accomplished and entertaining productions. The two casts' enthusiasm was evident recently as they got together over potluck and discussed comedic acting and the differences between the two versions of Simon's play.

The original comedy appeared on Broadway in 1965 and, of course, involved two men dealing with the aftershock of their divorces, moving in together as roommates then having to confront the even greater trauma of their personal differences. During their weekly poker game, Oscar's job is to spill the beer and chips, while Felix hovers anxiously with sponge and broom. When, as a kind of playful experiment with gender roles, Simon revised his play in 1985, the neat and tidy roommate morphed from Felix to Florence, while the messy one changed from Oscar to Olive.

Evelyn Renshaw, who plays Olive, pondered the pluses and minuses of Simon's decision to do some alterations on a much-loved play. Appearing in the female version, she says, "is a kind of advantage, having no Klugman or Randall to live up to; on the other hand, it's a kind of disadvantage because this is the version people are less familiar with. I suppose," she adds, "some people will come just out of curiosity."

The gender-reversal in the two versions naturally has comic potential. For example, the Pigeon sisters -- those swinging, sexually liberated stewardesses who live just upstairs from Oscar Madison's bachelor pad in the '65 original -- become the Costanzula brothers. Kim Roberts, who's directing the female version, comments that "It's hard to say which influenced which, Steve Martin and Dan Ayckroyd as those Wild and Crazy Guys on Saturday Night Live, or Simon's invention of the Costanzula brothers." These are swingers who usually manage to strike out.

The men's poker game, 20 years later, becomes a bunch of women laughing over a game of Trivial Pursuit. There was general agreement among the two casts that this portion of the female version is better written. Roberts notes that, "In the women's version, every Trivial Pursuit question seems inherently funny. But Simon had to add the humor, so to speak, during the men's poker game." For the female version, "Simon culled the best of the laugh lines from the original," though often without the benefit of their contextualizing set-ups. Still, she says, while the later version is "funnier," the original male version is "more substantial. It has more growth."

Renshaw, however, disagrees somewhat, believing that her own character, Olive Madison, is more concerned for Florence than Oscar is for Felix in the original: "She shows real caring for Florence. One of my favorite lines from the show comes when Florence is fussing over her hair, something about her personal appearance, and Olive says to her, 'Florence, leave yourself alone, don't tinker.' That really demonstrates her simple humanity, I think. She's trying to convey that Florence is good enough just the way she is and that she shouldn't worry so much."

Just as Olive demonstrates compassion, the women in the female Odd Couple are more concerned with socializing and getting to know one another. The men scheming at their poker game, claims Renshaw, are much more concerned with making money. The revised, female version seems more dated in that Florence Ungar, once she's separated from her husband, doesn't know what to do; she buys into the idea that a woman needs a man and can't live without a mate.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, says Roberts, there are more swear words in the women's version, probably reflecting the changes in society between the '60s and the '80s. As if to compensate, laughs Jamie Flanery -- Oscar Madison in the male version -- "we're trying to make it more sexually suggestive."

Members of both casts are avoiding one another's rehearsals on purpose, preferring to make their own independent discoveries about jokes, stage business and characters. There was the usual pre-opening night wariness in the group about every comedic actor's nightmare -- dead uncomprehending silence after a particularly funny bit of dialogue. Actors and crew members joked that they'd remedy that situation by attending each other's performances and laughing uproariously at every joke.

Jerry Sciarrio will play the role of Felix Ungar. As a veteran of many productions, he knows that "the unpredictability of the audience on any particular night is both the joy and the challenge of doing comedy." A line that gets a big laugh tonight may be met with silence tomorrow. Over a long run, says Sciarro, veteran actors will learn to adjust. His director in the male version, Dennis Ashley, agrees: "Inexperienced actors will just plow right on [through a big laugh], and lines get lost. Veterans will stall for a moment with some stage business, or else they'll simply repeat the line so that everyone can hear it." Still, with only a handful of performances, the actors won't have much opportunity to read audience reactions.

Sciarrio brings a special expertise to this production: "I've probably seen every episode of the TV show three times each." Many audience members will match his level of familiarity with Randall and Klugman. Some of the fun with these special summertime productions at the Civic, after all, involves their contribution to the tradition of Simon's dual comedies. F

Each version of The Odd Couple will run for only four performances. The male version will be performed on July 12, 14, 20 and 22; the female version plays on July 13, 15, 19 and 21. Curtain is at 8 pm, with the exception of Sunday matinees at 2 pm. The Civic Theatre is located on Howard directly across from the Spokane Arena. Tickets: $10. Call 325-2507.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.