The Odd Couple

Director Don Toner serves his Austin Playhouse revival of The Odd Couple well by turning its wonderful characters over to wonderful character actors

Arts Review

The Odd Couple

Austin Playhouse, through May 7

Running time: 2 hrs.

Two men, living the lives of men as society deems fit, are by circumstance and fate all but thrown into each other's arms. They find their connection to one another growing in unexpected, somewhat baffling ways, ways that defy what they once knew of themselves, ways that make them question traditional roles and relationships.

Yes, I'm talking about The Odd Couple.

It's just that in this post-Brokeback climate, it's hard to look at a story of two men and the sudden, unexpected deepening of their relationship without flashing on those two cowpokes and their forbidden romance up on that mountain.

Now, I'm not arguing for a gay subtext with Neil Simon's much-loved duo, in the theatre, on film, or on television (although who among us hasn't at one time wondered which team the extravagantly fussy Felix really plays for). And I'm certainly not suggesting that director Don Toner steered this Austin Playhouse revival in the direction of Ang Lee's film. He stays as true to the original's comedic spirit as I imagine Mike Nichols did for the Broadway premiere with Walter Matthau and Art Carney 41 years ago. That said, I believe one can see some common territory in the two works, in the way they both look at men, at the confining roles imposed on men by society (specifically in this country in the Sixties), and at the confusion that can result when men slip out of those roles. Obviously, one explores all that for its dramatic impact, and the other does it for laughs, but both in the process create truly memorable characters. That's one of the reasons we're still looking at The Odd Couple four decades on. It's not the punchlines – this play isn't the relentless joke juggernaut of later vintage Simon. It's Felix. It's Oscar.

And what better to do with wonderful characters than turn them over to wonderful character actors, which is precisely what Toner has done. He's chosen Playhouse acting company veterans Michael Stuart and David Stahl – as reliable a pair of comic actors as you'll find in our town – to embody Simon's mismatched roommates, and they do so with the casual grace of a guy pouring a beer (or in Felix's case, a buttery chardonnay). Stuart hasn't the deep creases or basset-hound jowls of a Matthau or Klugman, but here he does have something of a face like an unmade bed, its rumpled, slept-in quality informing his whole performance; with his Oscar, appearances always run a distant second to comfort and the needs of the moment. Stahl, on the other hand, seems only to be happy when he's picking up after someone, so as to ensure that his world is a spotless world. Leave him without a carpet to vacuum, and he's bereft. And a bereft Felix, as portrayed by Stahl, is a sight to see: his face so sunken, his eyes so disconsolate, you can almost see the rain cloud over his head. The two actors find an ideal balance for their characters' opposing natures, giving us a composite portrait of slack and tight, chaos and order. Circling them are a corps of similarly gifted comedians, all of whom deliver their exchanges and business at a snappy pace and with a sense of long-standing friendships. Moreover, they all appear to be having a grand time playing in Simon's tightly crafted sandbox – perhaps no two more so than Bernadette Nason and Janet Hurley Kimlicko as the Pigeon Sisters; their sudden outbursts of glee, punctuated by their hands demurely covering their mouths, never seem less than spontaneous and genuine, adding to the infectiousness of their delight and our sense of fun.

Of course it always comes back to that titular couple, the two men who can't seem to live with each other or without each other either. Near the end of the play, when Oscar has driven Felix out of his apartment and then starts to worry about him as if the man were his wife, Stuart paces about the set, nervously flicking his fingers, unable to tear his eyes from the door that his friend just walked through. He conveys the sense of his Oscar being so deeply invested in their relationship and yet so tortured by it that you almost expect him to blurt out, "I wish I could quit you, Felix." While Austin Playhouse hasn't quite created Brokeback Madison here, it has given us a sprightly comic look at male bonding that feels as fresh as one of this year's contenders for Best Picture.

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The Odd Couple, Neil Simon, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, David Stahl, Michael Stuart, Bernadette Nason, Janet Hurley Kimlicko

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