Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Beef & Boards rings in the New Year with an old comedy about marriage (without wives)

Two veterans of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre play the title roles in "The Odd Couple" to open the company's 2015 season. Neil Simon's comedy turns 50 next year, and the offstage friendship of Eddie Curry and Jeff Stockberger is already half that age.
Oscar (Jeff Stockberger) and the poker gang endure Felix's (Eddie Curry) cleanliness obsession.

Thus, the joys of familiarity are fully on display in the show, which opened Tuesday night. They bubble up according to the company's time-tested "louder, faster, funnier" formula,  shared with me years ago by Curry in an interview.

In this production, directed by Douglas E. Stark, B&B's executive director, Curry plays Felix Unger, a fastidious worrywart distressed by the recent breakup of his marriage. His friend and fellow B&B old-timer, Jeff Stockberger, portrays Felix's poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, a loutish, well-paid sportswriter rattling around in spacious bachelor digs on New York's Riverside Drive and struggling offhandedly to meet post-divorce obligations.

Felix's histrionic depression unnerves his friends — besides Oscar, squabbling poker pals Speed, Murray, Roy and Vinnie —  and prompts the sportswriter to invite Felix to move in until he gets his feet on the ground emotionally. The readily apparent character contrast was strong enough in the play's era of origin to inspire a hit TV series that branched off from Simon's plot.

In his classic mode of popularity, Simon mined his gifts as a gag writer to load his relationship conflicts with all the humor they can stand before asserting conventional values at the end: Newlywed woes surrounding the need to adjust personalities in "Barefoot in the Park" and the pains of growing up in a large urban family in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," to cite two eminent examples. The underlying value in "The Odd Couple" is the durability of male friendship across lifestyle boundaries that only seem barbed when those lifestyles are forced to coexist daily.

Another Simon, the acerbic theater critic John Simon, shortchanged the achievement of "The Odd Couple" when he dismissed the Broadway show as "nothing much more than a joke book tossed upon the stage." In fact, the jokes, smoothly tied into situational comedy, lead up to affirmation of the touching bond between two good friends at loggerheads.

Oscar urges skeptical Felix to envision dinner date with English sisters.
The vehicle for this transformation is the odd couple's dinner date with a pair of attractive, dotty English sisters (suitably jolly and eager in Erin Cohenour's and Carrie Fedor's performances) who live in the same building. They're charmed by Felix's vulnerability at just the point when his living arrangement with Oscar becomes untenable. That plot twist undergirds the subtle indication that sharing living quarters, however tumultuously, has benefited both men.

All this is by way of bringing up what works and what doesn't work in the Curry-Stockberger rapport. The security of their two-way interaction is palpable. Heightened commitment by both actors to making these male caricatures seem three-dimensional is evident from the start: Felix is torn up, ashen-faced at the prospect of life without his family; Oscar is blithe and borderline irresponsible as he tries to skate away from the traps of family life. As they act out their grating differences, the performances become sublimely all-out.

But the unrelenting fast pace is detrimental to establishing the simple humanity of the relationship. The playwright bears considerable responsibility for this by frontloading the play with carping, rapidfire dialogue for his excitable poker players — vividly enacted here by Michael Davis, Craig Underwood, Dave Ruark and Darrin Murrell. (The snappy tempo may have occasioned several opening-night line bobbles, the funniest of them being when Oscar invites Felix: "If you've got anything on your chin besides your chest, you better get it off now.")

The rest of the responsibility for the sketchiness of this friendship portrait is the director's, however. I hope it doesn't seem far afield to make my point by evoking something the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur said long ago before reading his poem "Two Voices in a Meadow." The poem is an imagined dialogue between a milkweed and a stone, which students had been instructed, Wilbur noted, to see as representing opposed spiritual and material points of view. The poet offered this correction:  Both voices are spiritual, but the stone is "spiritual in a slob way."

If "spiritual" is too strong a word for Oscar Madison, maybe "sensitive" works better. Like Felix, Oscar is a sensitive human being, but sensitive in a slob way. That nifty blend was missing in Stockberger's performance Tuesday; you had to sort of intuit it.  Bringing it out more would not have made "The Odd Couple" a sappy play or violated the reigning B&B style.

Both Oscar and Felix have grown through their difficult time together. Simon has done more than toss a joke book upon the stage and commanded us to laugh. He also leaves something for the audience to feel, even to think about.  But the lively professionalism of this production doesn't go to that aspect of the play with any real confidence.
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