Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trinity Rep: An Unbalanced "Odd Couple"

The first act of The Odd Couple, showing at Trinity Rep through May 9, is the funniest show that I have seen at any theatre this season. Until this past week, during which Perishable opened Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Brown/Trinity Consortium put on Uncle Vanya, competitors for the title included Elemental Theatre’s Amadeus, the Gamm Theatre’s 4:48 Psychosis, and Trinity’s own crepuscular Cabaret, but this is not meant as faint praise. (To be fair, all of our local theatres have essayed other comic plays, but the ones I have seen were empurpled with mordancy or melancholy; The Odd Couple is the only unmitigated comedy I’ve been to.) It is a pleasure to laugh at Neil Simon’s jokes because they are funny and not merely because they are certified with an appropriately goofy cadence or broad gesture. Actually, the first act of the show is too funny; it is as tightly acted and well staged as the second act should be. The second act is markedly less amusing; having established Simon’s dynamic early on, the cast have left nowhere for themselves to go. This is not to say that the performers lose energy, but rather that they work furiously for diminishing – or, at the very least, familiar – returns. This is comedy as gold-mining: it’s easy to get started, nearly impossible to sustain.

Of course, Oscar Madison’s slovenly shoulders and Felix Unger’s fastidious fury have kept the show popular and profitable for four and a half decades. A certain type of comedy – brusque but affectionate; masculine but not macho – is realized in this play. Simon’s vision, x-ray but not x-rated, revealed to audiences the stunted stubbornness of the male psyche. There is nothing romantic – or Romantic – about these men. Indeed, their feelings about marriage are pragmatic rather than poetic: it may not be a lot of fun, but, hey, everyone needs a companion.

The play has a shallow enough plot and a deep enough penetration into our culture to obviate summary. Still. Disheveled bachelor Oscar Madison (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), a sportswriter and poker-night host, takes his thoroughly domesticated friend Felix Unger (Brian McEleney) into his home when Felix’s wife leaves him. It turns out that they are completely incompatible: camaraderie recapitulates matrimony. Oscar sullies reflexively; Felix tidies (and cooks, and carps) obsessively. After three weeks of this antagonistic arrangement, Oscar plans a double date for Felix and himself with the Pigeon sisters (Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson), two English divorcĂ©es from upstairs. Felix eventually relents, but commits to having a miserable time. During the course of the evening, Felix has a guilty, gaudy breakdown about his ex-wife and children, and the Pigeons, as pigeons will, eat it up. Consoling him with coos and caresses, they forget all about Oscar, frustrating his hopes for a lascivious – pardon the pun – lark. The tenuous relationship permanently fractured by this betrayal, Oscar sends Felix packing, but we don’t worry about him: when we see him last, he is heading up to the Pigeons’ place, where we are certain he will be taken under wing.

Director Curt Columbus handles the script and the staging deftly. The actors’ timing is perfect – Joe Wilson, Jr., playing against type as a meekly uxorious pal of Oscar’s, is especially funny, even in a minor role – and their movement around Eugene Lee’s large stage is purposeful and precise. What the play doesn’t convey is a sense of deepening crisis: the actors, like the poker players they depict, seem to be playing for small stakes. The screws of comic dread are never tightened, and the problems of the play’s second act are those of its first. Fred Sullivan, Jr., a wily and winning actor, doesn’t depict Oscar’s affection for Felix curdling into aggression; instead, he begins the show aggressively, his gruffness not merely skin-deep but intrinsic. The comic payoff is immediate and gratifying, but it doesn’t accrue. Brian McEleney plays Felix Ungar as the direct descendant of his Malvolio from Twelfth Night – impacted and imperious – but he seems not to trust Ungar’s innocent energy, and so hangs his characterization on strings: he performs with all the spontaneity and selflessness of a marionette. His work is always either reactive or provocative; it is, either way, over-executed. Ungar does not need to be nuanced or internal, but he ought to be oblivious. McEleney is too clued-in to the comic potential of his cluelessness, so his performance is asphyxiated by self-awareness. The same reflexivity that made his Richard III (way back in 2008) so menacing inhibits his comic characterization.

As the bird-brained and like-minded Pigeon sisters, Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson are both wonderfully animated. But the Pigeons aren’t really characters; they’re more like holograms of women, transparent and distorted, projected from a skewed imagination –whether that imagination is Simon’s or his male characters’, I’m not sure – so even as we laugh at Kaye’s and Williamson’s portrayals, we puzzle over their purpose in the play. Are we meant to be laughing at them for their giggling disregard for social convention or at Oscar for his bald lust? That this question remains unanswered is, perhaps, the disappointment of the entire second act. The play’s comic potential has already been mined, its gold revealed. What’s left but to sift through the loose dirt of goofy cadence and broad gesture?

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