Sunday, May 7, 2017

Millbrook" "The Odd Couple"

Ten years ago, The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened its inaugural season with Neil Simon's The Odd Couple at the Robinson Springs United Methodist Church. Now housed at the nearby old Robinson Springs Elementary School, their current production of The Odd Couple boasts a cast of veteran actors, several of them reprising roles they played in 2007.

It seems that Simon's works never go out of style: The Odd Couple [1965] is the fourth Simon production to hit the River Region since February -- Fools at Faulkner University, Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Wetumpka Depot. His popularity stems in part from his likable and decent characters [imperfect as they are], as well as his witty dialogue replete with zingers and snappy one-liners.

The Odd Couple is most familiar from the successful 1970-1975 television sitcom of the same name, so there are built in expectations of seeing conflicts between good friends -- the easygoing and sloppy Oscar Madison [John Chain] and his unexpected housemate, the uptight neat-freak Felix Unger [Roger Humber].

When Felix arrives late to the weekly poker game at Oscar's 8-room Manhattan apartment [at $240 a month, a probably rent-controlled bargain even in 1965, when cigarettes went for .38-cents a pack and newspapers cost a dime], the motley crew of poker buddies are all concerned for their friend. Felix reluctantly tells them about his upcoming divorce, and Oscar generously offers to take him in as a temporary housemate. Longtime friendships are put to the test, and disaster is predictably on its way.

Of course, Felix wants to be helpful, and at first everyone is happy that his cooking outshines Oscar's and his tidying-up is a blessing; but things get out of hand as Felix's obsessions with cleanliness and deadlines destroy their camaraderie.  Roy [Wes Meyer], Speed [Bill Rauch], Murray [Mark McGuire], and Vinnie [John Collier] have numerous fallings-out, but Oscar eventually reaches a breaking point when his plans for him and Felix to double-date the Pigeon sisters -- Gwendolyn [Karla McGhee] and Cecily [Rae Ann Collier] -- ends catastrophically.

The play is really about friendship more than anything else: male-bonding over poker, cigars, booze, and bad food; friends who tolerate each others' extreme idiosyncrasies, even friendships between divorced husbands and wives. -- Both Oscar and Felix are devoted to their families [Oscar's sincere phone conversations with his ex-wife show a genter side of his otherwise brusque demeanor, and Felix's declarations of still loving his soon-to-be ex-wife can soften even the hardest hearts].

Directors Susan Chain and Stephanie McGuire have an acting ensemble who appear comfortable in their respective roles and with one another. But some static movement and unclear articulation get in the way of Simon's witty script. [Perhaps the unfortunately small audience had an effect on their performances; greater numbers responses would add to a lively interaction between actors and audience.]

Nonetheless, this production of The Odd Couple delivers on the playwright's intentions, garners some laugh-out-loud moments, and sends a gentle reminder that friendship is important to everyone.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"

Rose: "Why would a man need more than one woman?"
Johnny: "I don 't know. Maybe because he fears death."
--Moonstruck [1987]

Johnny's response in the film Moonstruck is also the crux of the matter in Neil Simon's comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers [1969], now being shown at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre, where the central character Barney Cashman [Will Webster] engages in hilarious encounters with three distinctly different women.

A bit of a nebbish, and essentially a "gentle, loving, and decent" fellow, Barney is appealingly naive when, after 27 years of marriage, he decides to have an affair, and uses his mother's apartment while she is away for a few hours in the afternoon. Completely ill-equipped for such a dalliance, always aware of his mother's fastidious housekeeping, and naive to any protocols, his attempts at romancing the three women are bound to fail from the very first moment, precisely because he is "gentle, loving, and decent."

Mr. Webster is on stage for the entire two hours and twenty minutes, a tour de force performance that shows this actor's versatility: comic timing, physical dexterity, clear and complex characterization, and a generosity in sharing the stage with three excellent actresses. -- And though Neil Simon was considered a lightweight comic writer in these early days, only being recognized for greater depth as his career developed, there are several serious notes in Last of the Red Hot Lovers that ought to receive attention.

In Barney's first encounter with sexpot Elaine [Leslie Blackwell], he first admits that this is "the first time in my life I think about dying". -- Elaine is loud, direct, and businesslike, and he is obviously nervous; and while he wants conversation "to get to know one another", she wants a drink and a cigarette. Ms. Blackwell is best at delivering one-liners with a deadpan seriousness that take Mr. Webster off-guard. And his blue-suit uptight demeanor dooms the relationship from the start. Our hearts go out to him, and also approve of her matter-of-fact non-judgmental exit.

Barney's second encounter with the hippie Bobbi Michelle [Leanna Wallace] is by far the most outrageously comical of the three. Ms. Wallace inhabits her character with all its contradictions and paranoid behavior with such unassuming grace and naivete that each squeal or aggression or petulance is welcomed by collective audience laughter. Goofy and charming throughout, this pot smoking scatterbrained chatterbox who has a Nazi-lesbian roommate, never misses a beat; and the pot smoking sequence loosens Barney up to the delight of the audience, especially as it has a near maudlin realization of Barney's age and mortality.

In the third encounter with Jeannette [Chantel Oakley] the icing is put on Simon's cake. Jeannette is a friend who clutches her pocketbook and has what amounts to an extraordinary emotional breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably and ruining any chance of an affair. -- She too is searching for the happiness that Barney seeks, and Ms. Oakley's melodramatic demands for him to name three people who are "gentle, loving, and decent" lead them both to realize that they and their spouses are the only ones that matter. Growing old together with the recognition that other people experience the same doubts and fears is a comforting note on which to end Barney's escapades.

Director Tom Salter stages Last of the Red Hot Lovers on a period specific 1960s set, and defines each scene distinctly, always aware of Barney's attempts to improve by adjusting to what came before, yet failing gloriously each time. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that stem from Simon's witty dialogue and adroit characterizations from the acting ensemble, making this an enjoyable and thought provoking production.