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Theater review: "The Odd Couple" at Lakewood Playhouse

The allure of the old familiar

Yin rooming with Yang: Jim Rogers and Chris Cantrell at the Lakewood Playhouse. Photo credit: Kate Paterno-Lick

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If there's one show every theater practitioner in America "knows" is overproduced, it's Neil Simon's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple. As Lakewood Playhouse's artistic director, John Munn, pointed out to me many times, however, that reputation isn't fully deserved. I, for one, had never actually seen a stage production of The Odd Couple prior to LP's opening night. I'd seen plenty of Annies, and Greases and Hamlets and Little Shops of Horror and Twelfth Nights and Into the Woodses, but never this particular show. Of course, that's not to say I don't know the play back and forth. We can all name its characters. We know why Felix is late to arrive in Act I, and where that messy food item's headed later on.

So what? There's an allure to the old familiar. I know how Hamlet ends, too, but that never seems to impede my absorption into the play. The challenge for a director (in this case, Steve Tarry) and company is to either present the same old same old in a way that turns it into the brand new brand new, or to revel in what made the damn thing so special in the first place. In the case of Mr. Simon's most lucrative effort, that's bulletproof comedy writing with relatable characters and situations. Cast the show well, play the characters, land the jokes, and you're 90 percent of the way home. Watching a familiar play performed well is like a perfect PB&J with a cold glass of Nesquik. It carries associations - feels like home.

As lights come up on Oscar's poker table, we settle in for two hours of comfort food. The jokes still work, thanks to a paucity of pop culture references. Borderline obsessive that I am, I found myself empathizing with Felix as Oscar torments him with bestial disorder. The set changes were clever and earned their applause. Yet I couldn't help noticing that something about this performance didn't gel. The uncredited set design, with its apartment door opening out on a black hole, felt rudimentary, though Hally Phillips' period-appropriate dressing and furniture helped. The kitchen props sounded lightweight on impact. The phone noise came from the opposite corner of the set from the phone itself. Perhaps the old-school staginess was intentional? I wasn't sure.

Supporting performances, notably Jed Slaughter as Murray, are amusing throughout. Chris Cantrell (Oscar) and Jim Rogers (Felix) are talented actors, but the former seemed to be overplaying (over-accented, maybe) while the latter underplayed. His Felix didn't present Oscar with enough hyperbolic neurosis to rant about. Still, these are old familiar opening-night issues as well, so it's possible the show will tighten itself up by the time you read this. I hope so. I like every person involved, and our audience enjoyed what it already had.

THE ODD COUPLE, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through May 11, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, $19-$25, 253.588.0042

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