Edith Weiss is giggling. She’s talking about the July 23 opening of The Odd Couple (Female Version) that she’s directing at the historic Barth Hotel downtown, and the cast’s enthusiasm for slapstick acrobatics. “Leslie O’Carroll is doing things I would have never asked her to do,” says Weiss. “She is fearless. She runs across the stage and takes a flying leap and lands on a table.” Now she’s guffawing.
Edith likes to laugh. This veteran playwright, director and actress has called Denver home for decades. She was part of the noted First Wave of Denver comics, and one of its few women, excelling at both stand-up and improvisational comedy. (Devoted fans might also recall her immortal portrayal of Lady Money Express in a set of hilarious local commercials years ago.)
She’s a shrewd choice to direct this gender-switched adaptation of the theater classic, one that Neil Simon did himself in 1985, twenty years after the original hit’s debut. Her cast is an octet of comic actors that any regular playgoer will recognize – DCPA vet O’Carroll as Olive Madison, the grumpy mess of the duo, and Arvada Center regular Sharon Kay White as Florence Ungar, the neat-freak who drives Olive crazy.
“I got to pick eight great people I’d never gotten to see work together before and throw them together,” says Weiss. Rory Pierce, Jason Maxwell, Judy Phelan Hill, Gina Wencel, Susie Scott and Lindsey Pierce complete the ingredients. Weiss credits their energy and inventiveness in overcoming the limitations of one of the most charming but unusual places to stage a play in town – the hotel’s lobby.
The Barth now houses 62 elderly and disabled people, and the play is the primary fundraising event of the year for Senior Housing Options, the non-profit organization that runs the Barth and twelve other such facilities in Colorado, providing quality, affordable care for Colorado seniors. Staging a play in the Barth’s lobby can sometimes be akin to mounting a musical in your kitchen during dinner time.
“People sometimes do wander through in the middle of a scene,” Weiss says. “Hey, people live there!”
Weiss likes Simon’s adaptation, saying it reflects a whole different truth when told through female characters. “It’s usual to see a man achieve confidence and independence, like Felix does at the end of the original play,” she says. “But for a woman, her struggle is harder, it’s more earned. You really have to earn it as a woman.”
Of course, Weiss sees through the lens of a playwright as well. She’s adding to her prominence in children’s theater with murder mysteries and more – thirty published scripts to date. “I get to stay at home and do something and do something until it’s right,” she says of the writing trade. “And garden.”
Weiss started out in children’s theater, mounting a new play a week. She soon discovered that children comprise the most demanding and honest audiences in the world.
“We were in a black-box theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” she says, “and you know those horrible carpet-square remnants they sell? Well, those were the kids’ seats. Our first show, we were so bad they took off their shoes and threw them at us. Then they took off their socks and threw them at us. Then they took their carpet squares and threw them at us.
“So we learned about pacing, keep it moving, keep it funny, keep it real. Nobody is harder to win over than an audience of children.”
Weiss, like many in the area, says the cohesiveness of the local theater scene is unique to Denver: “Look at the support that’s there, for instance all the benefits for (late actress) Shelly Bordas – a lot of that is John Moore’s (Denver Post, DCTC) work. It’s cool to be a part of that – it’s a real community, people that do a lot to help each other.”
She sees the same impulse running through Senior Housing Options’ mission. “Until I did my first show here,” she says, “I had no idea that the Barth was here and doing this for people, among the prime real estate, right in the middle of downtown. I’m kind of proud of a city that can do that.”
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Given her current batch of playmates, Weiss’s vision of The Odd Couple should be a riot, with an undercurrent of seriousness rarely teased out of Simon’s work. “It’s bittersweet ending,” Weiss says. “Florence achieves confidence, while still honoring the friendship she had with Alice, the woman who kicked her out in the first place. It took us a while to get to that in rehearsal. There are no villains in this version. And it’s still funny as shit.”
And she laughs.
The Odd Couple (Female Version) is presented by Senior Housing Options from Thursday, July 23 through August 22 at the Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464, ext. 10, seniorhousingoptions.org.