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Theater: Check Into the Barth for The Odd Couple — The Female Edition

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Oscar has morphed into Olive and Felix into Florence in The Odd Couple — The Female Version, Neil Simon’s 1980s take on his 1960s hit play, The Odd Couple, which morphed into a movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and then a sitcom featuring Jack Klugman and the inimitable Tony Randall. This show has many of the strengths and weaknesses of its older brother: It’s lively and funny, and the dialogue, while sometimes flat or out-and-out silly, is often very clever.

Olive is the slob whose apartment is a mess and who serves her friends rotting sandwiches and stale chips at their regular round-the-table game of Trivial Pursuit (the guys used to play poker). Her life changes radically when her long-time friend Florence appears, needing a place to stay. Florence isn’t just finicky and neat; she’s a full-out throwback to the 1950s — a stay-at-home mom with no skills other than cleaning and cooking and no idea how she’ll manage now that her diminutive, cowboy-boots-wearing husband has demanded a divorce.

There isn’t much plot beyond that, and though the interaction between the two women is fun, it’s not nearly enough fun to fill a full two hours and twenty minutes.

I saw the male version at Miners Alley last summer, and even though the relationships in that play were just as shallow, you did sense a kind of aggravated affection between Oscar and Felix, and some sadness as their living situation deteriorated. But Olive and Florence appear to dislike each other from beginning to end. Having guilt-tripped Olive into letting her stay, Florence proceeds to annoy the hell out of her and their circle of friends.

You have a faint hope that these women will influence each other; perhaps Olive will become a shade less slobby and Florence lose some of her annoying prissiness. But in the end, there’s no emotional development, nothing interesting revealed about these women’s relationships with, say, their estranged husbands — just a vague sense that they’ve become a bit more assertive, perhaps Simon’s nod to female empowerment.

In the original version, two strangely birdlike Englishwomen show up; there’s a parallel scene here when the women set up a date with neighboring brothers, Manolo and Jesus Costazuela. It’s a little cringe-inducing having non-Hispanic actors assume the kind of accent we associate with Fawlty Towers’ farcical Manuel, but this scene is hilarious and in many ways the best thing in the play.

Under Edith Weiss’ direction, the acting is capable, though sometimes a little too broad. Sharon Kay White’s Florence, for instance, is very amusing, and White’s comic timing is terrific, but overall the portrayal leans toward caricature. As slow-witted Vera, Judy Phelan-Hill gives a quietly centered performance that contrasts nicely with the high-pitched action around her. Rory Pierce and Jason Maxwell play the Spanish brothers to the insane hilt — and here the cartoonishness both works and is necessary. But Pierce also brings warmth and charm along with the zaniness. And then there’s Leslie O’Carroll, whose presence always guarantees a worthwhile evening of theater. As Olive, she provides much of the significance and emotional contour missing from the script. She even manages to carry those later scenes in which Simon’s comic invention has quite obviously leaked away.

There are a few other good reasons to see this production. One is that it takes place in the lobby of the Barth Hotel, one of fourteen residences around the state run by the nonprofit Senior Housing Options for elderly, disabled and impoverished people. These summer plays serve as the organization’s primary fundraisers: Last year’s paid for computers to aid residents’ tech literacy; the 2015 proceeds will help fund a bus to transport them to various enriching and enjoyable activities. The Barth, with its patina of age and elegance, is also a fine place to see theater – the work is professional quality, but there’s also a groundedness and lack of pretension here, occasionally emphasized by a resident wandering through the action on the way to the elevator.  

The Odd Couple — The Female Version, through August 22, Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464, ext. 10, seniorhousingoptions.org

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