HARDWICK — Just prior to the curtain going up on the first performance of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” Gilbert Players Artistic Director Linda Tomasi went before the audience humming the show’s iconic theme song, which immediately got the crowd humming along. This immediately led the audience to expect a fun evening and in their first attempt at a nonmusical production, the Gilbert Players did not disappoint.
The plot is a familiar one: Two characters with completely opposite personalities (and in this case, hygiene) try to live together under the same roof. Only Neil Simon, who may not have invented the plot, certainly made masterful use of it in his three-act staging. This is why “The Odd Couple” won two Tony awards (one to Simon for Best Play and one Best Actor award to the original Oscar Madison, Walter Matthau) and why it has been repeated countless times on stage, in film and on television.
At the start of Act One, we see the main room of sportswriter Oscar’s eight-room apartment, which is an abysmal mess, intentionally designed thanks to the wonderfully adept staging sensibilities of directors John and Linda Tomasi. We see a very meticulously placed assortment of messy items: a football lamp, an old fashioned typewriter next to a couch covered in clothes and sporting equipment, trophies with a football helmet lined up on top, a dial telephone which helps us know the time period in which the story takes place (kudos for the directors in not trying to modernize the story), a wastebasket overflowing with paper, a bowling bag, board games, a coconut bra hanging from a picture frame, and a fireplace loaded up with pizza boxes. Why a high rise New York apartment needs a fireplace I don’t know, but it’s there.
As the story unfolds, what sometimes gets lost in people’s memories is the wonderful initial chemistry of the card players of Oscar Madison’s Friday night poker game. The Directors Tomasi do an affable job bringing to the forefront the relationship of the players in their adaptation of the Simon story. When the players exit the stage, leaving Tom Sullivan’s Oscar and Sean Hunley’s Felix alone together, one cannot wait for their re-appearance. It takes a little while, but the chemistry between Hunley and Sullivan builds nicely.
Hunley does a wonderful job maintaining the concept of CBS news writer Felix Unger as a sensitive and fastidious hypochondriac without playing him as overly effeminate, which is a trap into which many other actors fall.
Sullivan makes Oscar his own by downplaying the character’s more iconic slovenly side, and instead shows us Oscar as a survivalist, eight months divorced, months behind on alimony and so totally under financial pressure that he is forced to take in newly divorced Felix, his polar opposite.
William C. Gelinas is an absolute delight as Murray, aka Murray the Cop. He wins the audience over in seconds with his unique portrayal and has a wonderful way of working off the rest of the cast on stage. Rounding out the poker club are Peter Guilbault as Roy, Oscar’s stressed-out accountant, Bill Gelinas as irascible car salesman Speed and Larry Johnson as Vinnie, a henpecked travel agent.
By the start of Act Two, it is two weeks later and Felix has eviscerated the mess that was Oscar’s apartment. Gone are the board games, sporting equipment, trophies, coconut bra and the pizza boxes have been replaced by some sort of fireplace cover shaped like a large peacock or pheasant (it looks weirder than described, but it works). There is not a trace of waste anywhere in Oscar’s apartment, but is Oscar happy? No.
Oscar regrets his decision to bring Felix in, but in one last effort to make it work he sets Felix and himself up on a double date with beautiful sexpot siblings Gwendolyn and Cecily, aka the Pigeon Sisters, played respectively by Suri Paton and Mallory Anderson, who beam brightly on stage as the giddy duo. However, Oscar’s plan yields disastrous results, driving him to eject Felix from the apartment. Felix retaliates by placing a curse on Oscar’s conscience.
By the end of Act Three the poker buddies return in an effort to patch the crumbling relationship between the feuding roommates. They, and the audience, hope that Oscar and Felix might each walk away from their experience having learned something of value from the other.
For their first nonmusical production, Gilbert Players selected a wonderful show and delivered an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.