'Odd Couple' production not just the same old classic

acarlson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 30, 2014 

It’s the “musicality” that everyone talks about first, not the comedy.

Ask the cast of the Springer’s new production of Neil Simon’s classic comedy, “What’s it like to be performing Neil Simon?”

You get a similar answer.

“The first thing that Paul mentioned to us in rehearsal was the musicality of the text and how it’s very much like a piece of music,” said Chris Graham, a longtime Springer performer who stars as neatnik-y Felix. “And the more you do it and the more the text comes out and you get more comfortable with it, the more it becomes apparent that it’s not just in the obvious sections — it’s everywhere through the play.”

Susannah Smith, who pays Gwendolyn Pigeon, agrees.

“I’ve found, when I was struggling with a line, even to just remember it if i just got out of the way and just said the words — don’t think about the subtext, just say the words — and then it hits you and it’s like, ‘Oh that’s what it means,’” Smith said.

This approach is important, especially with a production of “The Odd Couple.” Simon is often considered the most successful American playwright in history — the only person to ever have four plays on Broadway concurrently.

“It’s fun to say these words, it’s just a lot of fun,” Smith said.

But “The Odd Couple” is a play first and a comedy second: Simon’s story of two friends — the divorced Felix and Oscar (Robert Briscoe Evans) who happen to be opposites in almost every way and also happen to move in together — has to have some weight as well as wit.

“Neil Simon is notoriously underestimated by producers and directors and actors. The idea that, ‘Hey! This is just a bunch of comedy and go out there and yuk it up and everything like that’ — if you do that, there’s about 10 minutes of entertainment value in that,” said director Paul Pierce. “In order for it to be a play, you have to care about the characters and the stakes have to be high for these characters.”

That's the other thing everyone likes to talk about: though a comedy, "The Odd Couple" is — oddly — about real humanness, real brokenness.

Or maybe not so oddly: "The Pigeon sisters, who I do think are a moment of bizarre hilarity, but also they're broken ladies," said Helen Varner, who plays Gwendolyn's sister, Cecily. "They're single ladies because this one's husband died while they were getting divorced and my husband and I never got along and so we divorced. So we're like desperate women on the prowl, essentially, but we love our lives and we know we're divorced, we're fine with it, we're moving on. And we've embraced that. And that's part of what's hysterical about the Pigeon sisters is that they're not ashamed. They're going for it."

"Felix attempts suicide as he's getting a divorce, which is what happened — your husband (Gwendolyn's husband) died as you were getting a divorce and then you (Cecily) are divorced and then you (Oscar) are divorced. That's a funny little thing," said Adam Archer, who plays Speed.

So "The Odd Couple" is a classic. It is a story about characters who care and who the audience should care about. It is a comedy. It is all of these things.

"The show that will ultimately make it to the stage already has all those other levels built in that were alive inside the rehearsal hall. And so when we're playing a scene, it's not like, 'Hey we made a choice and that was it,'" Pierce said. "All those different levels of what's happening in the scene are already living within the sense memory of these actors."

IF YOU GO

When: May 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. Also May 8-11 and May 15-17.

Where: The Springer Opera House, 103 10th Street

Cost: Tickets are $17-$37.

Call: 706-327-3688.

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