NI SCENE October 20, 2012
BICKERING, BANTER AND A LONDON BROIL IN THIS RIOTOUS REMAKE OF THE DROLL BROADWAY CLASSIC
Guy Masterson (Under Milk Wood and Morecambe) returns to Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill to direct a near-flawless version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.
It is Masterson's second crack at directing the gag-laden script - the first back in 2005 with comedians Bill Bailey and Alan Davies - and this time, just to make his life more interesting, he is starring in it too, as laconic sports-writer Oscar Madison.
In colourful shirts and flip-flops, Oscar has been divorced from his wife, the never-seen Blanche, just long enough to settle into a slobbish rut. He gambles too much, his maid has quit and the food in the fridge is spoilt - but he likes it that way.
Masterson strikes the perfect balance of world-weary and laid-back as he prowls around Oscar's life. He is the brightly clad fulcrum of the cast, almost always part of the call and answer banter.
Then Oscar's long-time friend and poker buddy, Felix Ungar, a tightly wound and neurotic news-writer, arrives late to a poker game after being thrown out by wife. Unkempt and untucked, Felix drops heavy-handed hints about half-hearted suicide attempts.
Played by Marty Maguire, Felix is a twitching bag of neuroses, hypochondria and compulsions. Maguire must have an all-over tooth-ache by the end of the night after pulling off Felix's tense, rigid body language.
Half-exasperated and half-sympathetic, Oscar offers his friend a place to stay. They promptly start to send each other very entertainingly round the bend.
The rest of the cast are equally well-suited to their roles. The 'poker buddies' - Paddy Jenkins, Nick Hardin, Dave Johns and David Calvitto - bounce each other with casual ease. The dialogue is fast-paced and tangled, usually at least three topics running at once, but they keep their places with aplomp.
Nuala McKeever and Claire Connor also do a great job as the widowed and divorced (respectively) Pigeon Sisters. They are vivacious and giggly (one spate of the nudging-giggles seems suspiciously real!), but they also nail the awkward body language and obligatory of a blind date going bad.
Although not listed on the cast page the set designed by David Craig was practically a character in its own right. It was amazingly realistic, with halls and doors to walk through. There were even windows that could be opened and shut, with a backdrop of the city and room enough behind for characters to lean out. It was as convincing as the live set on Emmerdale (yes, I watched that. Don't judge).
The illusion, of course, was helped along by the stage-elves, who nipped in under cover of dimmed lights to tidy up and lay out Felix's doubtlessly measured to the millimetre place-settings.
The joy of The Odd Couple is in the effortless dialogue, the easy-going give and take of insult and understanding that comes from sharing friendship, milieu and city. It isn't a play that lends itself happily to adaptation - lose Neil Simon's words and you lose the play - and thankfully Masterson doesn't try.
He doesn't need to, the play might be 47 years old, but it is still surprisingly contemporary. And Simon's dialogue is as scintillatingly clever and poised as ever." (Tammy Moore - NI Scene - 20/10/13)
Culture Northern Ireland 23/10/12
RIB-TICKLING EXAMINATION OF MALE FRIENDSHIP FINDS ADDED RELEVANCE IN THE ERA OF 'BROMANCE'
"The Odd Couple's concept is so ingrained - and been so thoroughly riffed on - in pop culture, that it takes the prefix of 'original' to refer specifically to Neil Simon's brash creations of messy extrovert Oscar Madison and neurotic sadsack Felix Unger, the mismatched duo who first stormed Broadway almost 50 years ago.
The story's DNA of opposites stuck together in a love/hate relationship has been reinvented endlessly, in comic masterclasses (Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Peep Show) and cookie cutter romances, while the 'bromance' phenomenon owes Simon not so much a debt of gratitude as an actual cash payback given how many filmmakers have pilfered his original formula (see nearly every Judd Apatow movie).
Now director Guy Masterson - who also stars as Oscar - has brought a faithful production, right down to its 1960's Manhattan flavour, to Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill. No stranger to the source material, Masterson also directed a 2005 version at Edinburgh Fringe starring Bill Bailey and Alan Davies. The production went on to become one of the Fringe's fastest selling shows. No pressure then.
The play opens in Oscar's slovenly bachelor pad, a once loving home now gone to pot since his wife and daughter abandoned the schlubby sportswriter to his own mess. The apartment - in which the entire play is set - is the story's silent character, which undergoes it's own Kafkaesque metamorphosis after the neurotic Felix (Marty Maguire) sets about making it habitable.
A weekly poker game featuring the pair and their buddies is in full swing, but Felix arrives uncharacteristically late, by which time the guys - Oscar, panicky cop Murray (Dave Johns), moany accountant Roy (David Calvitto), belligerent Speed (Nick Hardin) and laidback Vinnie (Paddy Jenkins) - discover the unfortunate clean freak has been kicked out by his wife.
He's even gone so far as to swallow a bottle of 'little green pills', before throwing them up again ('Maybe they were vitamins!,' Oscar quips, 'He could be the healthiest one in the room!').
Oscar, himself a recent divorcee whose financial recklessness results in occasional threatening phone calls over child support payments, invites Felix to move into his large apartment. And the love-hate affair begins, as the diametrically opposed pair begin to drive each other bonkers.
Masterson-s strong cast clearly relish Simon's whipsmart dialogue, featuring some bravura comic set pieces and the introduction of potential love interests, the Pigeon Sisters (Nuala McKeever and Claire Connor) - fully demonstrate why The Odd Couple remains Simon's most loved, and crowd pleasing work.
The acting is strong across the board, with the supporting players offered ample opportunity to fire off at least a couple of zinger lines thanks to Simon's generosity. But this is still Oscar and Felix's show, with Masterson and Maguire pitching the pair's increasing disharmony with ideal comic fervour.
But it is their treatment of each character's barely concealed sadness that would really gain Simon's approval. Oscar and Felix can easily be caricatured into grumpy slob or hysterical ninny respectively, but the comedy only really sings if both characters are acknowledged as lonely opposites seeking equilibrium in each other.
The couple's quasi-marital relationship may be an obvious joke, but it's hard to question their genuine love for each other, even if it results in the odd smashed plate of spaghetti or a burnt London Broil.
'If you can go through life without feeling pain, you probably haven't been born yet,' wrote Simon in his memoir in 1999, and it's this feeling of hopeful despondency that gives his work - and this production - a beating, hilarious heart." (Ciaran McCauley - Culture Northern Ireland - 23/10/12)