It’s men’s poker night in the Manhattan apartment of the “divorced, broken, and sloppy,” Oscar Madison says. He cracks a beer that sprays the table and soaks cards and chips.
So opens Next Stage Repertory Company’s slick production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” playing at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13-14, at the Craterian Theater in Medford.
The players grumble, and Oscar growls, “If I wanted nagging, I’d go back with my wife.” The game is soon overshadowed by the discovery that one of its regulars is missing. He has left his wife and is threatening suicide. The men worry, pace and speculate until the missing Felix Ungar appears. Pandemonium ensues as the men struggle desperately to keep Felix from doing himself in.
The upshot of the story is that Oscar and Felix become roommates. All would be well, if they could just get along. Felix is a fastidious introvert who tends toward hypochondria and tears.
“The first sign of anything going wrong, I go to pieces,” he says.
Oscar is a slovenly, relaxed schmoozer. Both are lonely, and both are unhappy to live alone.
Their chemistry is not oil and water, but vinegar and soda. Sparks fly as they sizzle, spat and slide from one petty domestic crisis to the next. It becomes clear that they are still playing the roles that drove their former marriages to destruction. Neither man wants to change.
“We are what we are,” Felix says.
While Oscar searches for excitement and romance, Felix clings to control and order. Enter “that English Betty Boop and her sister,” Cecily and Gwen Pigeon — marvelously portrayed by Andrea Hochkeppel and Marlena Gray. The sisters are lighthearted and glib, warm and compassionate, and bring more hilarity to the situation as they giggle, fidget and flirt.
The size of the Craterian Theater requires immense physicality on the part of the actors and clever choreography on the part of director Doug Warner, but both seem accomplished with ease. Oscar, played by Roy Von Rains Jr., swings and swaggers, and Mark Roper's Felix tiptoes and poses as he stalks and retreats around the poker table. All of this might not be believable, except for the balance and authenticity that each actor brings to his character. Felix’s catlike premeditation and childish manipulations are balanced by his mild voice and deadpan expressions. Oscar saunters and sways, as he is intensely concerned with the high stakes of either losing a close friend or his sanity.
The poker players are nimbly played by David Rowley as Vinnie, the big winner with the wimpy voice; Greg Franklin as Murray, the hefty cop with a soft heart; Justin Briggs as Speed, who threatens to quit the game and start reading books again; and Peter Wickliffe as Roy, who notes that the poker food is the same garbage as the previous week's game. The high jinks of the players are perfectly coordinated and timed.
The bright minimal set is filled with hundreds of period props that Felix examines, cleans, organizes and puts away. In all of the chaos, he keeps the apartment tidy.
For those who think that “The Odd Couple” may be outmoded, think again. The script is as insightful and the characters as genuine as when the play premiered in 1965. It has enjoyed many revivals and adaptations in film and on television. Anyone who has had a roommate will identify with either one or both of the characters in any given situation.
The opening night audience was receptive from the first line; cheers greeted the curtain call.
Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
Evalyn Hansen is a freelance writer based in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.