Higher-brow critics may beg to differ, but if any play deserves to be called a classic American comedy, it's "The Odd Couple." Neil Simon's study of the epic battle between Oscar Madison, slob, and Felix Ungar, fussbudget, is almost 50 years old now, and has been in the public consciousness rather consistently since its Broadway debut in 1965.
My guess is that many people know these characters from the movie version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, or the 1970's TV show with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. The play that started it all doesn't seem to be done all that much anymore, but Geva Theatre is bringing it back in a first-class revival, with smooth direction, a perfect set, and a dandy cast that peaks at the top with two noted Broadway actors: Michael McGrath as Oscar, and Noah Racey as Felix.
As the saying goes, this play needs no introduction, but just in case you have spent the last half-century on another planet: Oscar, a sportswriter, is recently divorced; his best friend Felix has just separated from his wife and comes to Oscar in distress. Oscar invites Felix to move in with him until he gets his life sorted out. Oscar is an easygoing slob and Felix a neurotic clean freak, and the domestic fireworks begin.
Throw in four kibitzing poker-playing friends, a couple of frisky English birds (the Pigeon sisters, in fact) from an upstairs apartment, many jokes, and a bit of sentiment, and you have a play that still works like a charm. Many of the jokes have gotten a bit cozy and predictable over the years, the giggly attitude to sex is strictly 1960's mainstream, and the ending is a bit pat, but "The Odd Couple" still plays like gangbusters, especially when it is directed and performed this well.
There is no point in doing "The Odd Couple" without a good Oscar and Felix, and McGrath and Racey are terrific -- separately and together. Both men are probably best-known for their work in musicals. McGrath was in the original "Spamalot" and recently won a Tony for "Nice Work If You Can Get It"; Racey has been in numerous hit shows and is also a writer, director, and choreographer. They nail all of Simon's wisecracks, have a great knack for physical comedy, and add interesting nuances to these well-worn characters and situations.
Racey's comic timing can be delightfully quirky, and McGrath's is simply perfect, but both are not afraid to suggest a little seriousness in their characters -- very much to the point in a play by Neil Simon, whose characters (to paraphrase one of Oscar's remarks) make the same sounds for pleasure as they do for pain. Felix is definitely in great emotional distress when he enters, which Racey plays convincingly; the other characters' reactions to him are funny, but he's dead serious (for a while, at least). And McGrath, for all his skill delivering the jokes, has a rather serious mien that subtly suggests a man who, despite an easygoing approach to life, has also had the emotional stuffing knocked out of him.
Director John Miller-Stephany hasn't turned Neil Simon into Beckett or Albee. "The Odd Couple" is still a laugh riot -- even the set changes are amusing. But with the play's basic situation respected, it is a laugh riot with just the right touch of substance.
Felix and Oscar's poker buddies have brief but juicy roles, and Brian D. Coats as Speed, Patrick Noonan as Murray, Robert Rutland as Roy, and Drew Hirshfield as Vinnie all score. And as Gwendolyn and Cicely, the Pigeon sisters, Jennifer Cody and Erin Lindsey Krom are hilariously ditzy (and nothing like their namesakes in "The Importance of Being Earnest").
The highbrow critics mentioned above may sniff at "The Odd Couple," and Simon's work in general seems to be regarded as the theatrical equivalent of TV situation comedies. But when the situations are still engaging and the comedy still plays, what's wrong with that? "The Odd Couple" has aged well, and if you don't mind my saying so, stands up at least as well as, say, the best plays of Kaufman and Hart. Geva's opening-night audience laughed before the first line was spoken, and seldom let up after that.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.