At odds and ends
Ojai’s revival has a talented cast and crew. So why doesn’t it work?
By Jenny Lower 03/31/2011
Susan Kelejian’s director’s note for The Odd Couple (Female Version) reads like an apology for the show you are about to see. It begins, “To be honest, the play was not my first choice to direct.” She worried the material was too dated, too flat, too clichéd, but hoped the appeal of Neil Simon, who “has proved to be quite popular” — inexplicably, it seems, to Kelejian — would be enough to swing a success. Unfortunately, her gut reaction has proved true.
It’s a pity, because the band of actors Kelejian has collected for the Ojai Art Center’s production is extremely talented.
Neil Simon updated his 1965 hit play about a fussbudget and a slob who become unlikely roommates to a pair of women living in post-feminist, 1980s New York. While there are substantial edits and shined-up dialogue — Felix and Oscar have become Florence and Olive, and their girlfriends come over for drinks and Trivial Pursuit instead of cigars and poker — switching up the genders is not just a matter of swapping out pronouns. Simon’s play, and I mean this in the least sexist way possible, is inherently less funny with two women. Add dated jokes about Dynasty and Florida vacations delivered to the sound of crickets, and it’s no wonder these actors can’t pull it off.
Jenna Scanlon and Toni Pineau are terrific as the slovenly Olive and uptight Florence (who gets dumped by her husband and moves into Olive’s apartment). Scanlon delivers her lines with deadpan aplomb, and her hunched posture perfectly matches the grouchy misanthropy we expect from Olive.
Pineau is equally skilled, but her Florence suffers far more in translation. Picture Jack Lemmon with a dishtowel slung over his shoulder: it’s funny because it plays against type. “Real” men are not supposed to cook and clean and fret about footprints on the kitchen floor. But most people know at least a few women who fit that description, so the story becomes less about living with your wacky roommate and more about bunking with your neatnik mother.
The four supporting friends give the play a Golden Girls feel with their bawdy humor and thick-and-thin mentality, but they, too, lose out to gender inconsistencies in Simon’s script. The idea that a bunch of women would pretend to ignore their suicidal friend for a card game, as their male counterparts do in the original, is ludicrous. Kelejian also has them serve as stagehands during three excruciatingly long, fully lit soundtracked set changes. This unusual move offers face time, but breaks up the play’s momentum and deflates the suspense from Florence’s second-act transformation of the apartment. These ladies (Carol Garamond, Virginia Street, Marisa Mycelia, Laura Ring) clearly know their way around a stage. It would be a pleasure to see what they would do with better material.
Ashley James Johnson and Nelson Fox add some spice to the second half as Spanish brothers living upstairs who double-date the roommates. Johnson successfully exploits every Spanish stereotype, adding gratuitous flourishes to each movement. But Fox, bewilderingly, appears to be wearing blackface makeup and to have taken inflection cues from Jar Jar Binks.
I wanted to like this play. I really did. With the headlines a string of crises lately, we could all use a laugh. But jokes are funny when they ring true, and contemporary audiences find little to relate to in Simon’s twice warmed-over script. Kelejian writes that she chose the play for the many parts it offers women, but it’s telling that those were originally drafted for men. In the theater, as in Hollywood, we need writers crafting more interesting, complex roles for women of a certain age. Kelejian herself is a playwright; perhaps we can expect her to lead the way.
The Odd Couple (Female Version) plays though April 23 at Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery Road, Ojai. For reservations, call 640-8797.