Warm, fuzzy comedy at odds with the times

Mad Cow Theatre's decision to stage "The Odd Couple" seems a wise choice for a company that wishes to promote theater to a broad audience. Thanks to the popular film and TV sitcom based on this 1965 play by Neil Simon, the story of the hilariously mismatched roommates Oscar and Felix has become ingrained in American culture. The difficulty of presenting a classic is developing an individual twist without disappointing the audience's expectations.

In Mad Cow's interpretation of "The Odd Couple," director Trudy Bruner shapes her odd couple into characters of depth and realism. Stephan Jones plays Oscar Madison as the slovenly, irresponsible divorcee but with more patience and benevolence. Rick Stanley plays Felix Ungar as the neurotic neat freak but with more bitterness and anger.

The risk in Bruner's taking away the traditional flatness of the characters is the loss of the humor that saves the comedy from becoming a depressing drama. Even the poker game with Felix and Oscar's buddies that opens the play turns many of the funny pokes into biting sarcasm. The gang's comedic chemistry suffers from a slow pace, and their friendship feels like it's built on disgust rather than any true affection for each other. In general, there is no sense to be made of why they continue to put up with each other, and why we as an audience should care if they do.

Not all laughs are lost, though, as several moments and performances add energy to the play. Stanley plays Felix with all the insecurities and neuroses of a man whose wife of 12 years has kicked him out of the house. When he interrupts the poker game with "suicide attempts," the panic that ensues between his pals is true comedy, as they trip over themselves in an attempt to cheer up Felix. Especially funny is Ron McDuffie as Vinnie, who can be seen running hysterically back and forth, only to use the cold compress he fetched for Felix to cool himself down. But only Felix's best friend Oscar, who suffers from loneliness himself, knows what Felix needs -- a home. Oscar invites Felix to be his roommate, and like a newlywed he has illusions that he'll be the one to change Felix, to loosen up his obsessive-compulsive behavior, as he ushers him into the potentially intimidating world of bachelorhood.

One of the pleasures or pressures of being single is dating, which becomes the catalyst for the most amusing scene in the production, when Oscar introduces Felix to the lovely pair of sisters who live in the apartment upstairs. Adonna Niosi and Mikki Kriekard are marvelous as the giggling, sexually charged Pigeon sisters. Their presence brings out the best performances in Jones and Stanley, as the actors fall into the exaggerated personas that make them a perfectly matched odd couple.

Another highlight is William Elliott's set design, which transforms Rollins College's Fred Stone Theater into an eight-bedroom apartment, which is not an easy task in the small theater that stands nearby the grander Annie Russell Theatre. The designer's multiple doorways and hallways provided creative space for the actors to play out their physical comedy. Monica Gibson's costumes also help to complete the return to the 1960s, when divorce was coming into fashion along with the miniskirt.

Mad Cow's production of "The Odd Couple" doesn't suffer just from interpretation but also from the attitudes of a contemporary audience. Today, divorce is as commonplace as men like Felix who enjoy cooking and cleaning, which in the '60s would have been stereotypical female roles. So many of the jokes that were once shocking do not have the same impact today. Yet "The Odd Couple" survives as a testament to human nature and how quickly we recognize faults in others while allowing pride to blind us to our own shortcomings.

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