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Ba da bing, ba da boom! Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” first seen on Broadway in 1965, comes to Michigan — with vintage New York attitudes and accents to match — courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre.
Those whose recollections of this play are based on the movie — or worse yet, the lightweight TV series — or even worse, the 1985 so-called female version — have likely entirely forgotten the cultural subtexts of the original play, the hilarious contributions of the strong supporting characters and the brittle, deadpan humor of the two main characters. (The only thing missing is a snare drum and a cymbal hit the timely ta-dump-bums.)
Roy (Chris Lutkin) explodes into the Riverside Drive apartment of main character Oscar Madison without knocking, establishing the long camaraderie of the six long-time poker players. He is followed by three more seriously “New Yawk” characters, each with elegant Bronx and Brooklyn articulations, poking and picking at the other. This is old-time male humor at its pre-political correctness best.
The plot develops. Where is Felix? It turns out his wife has kicked him out. The resulting agitation of the group as they discuss if Felix might be suicidal creates a bouncing ball of hysteria among the characters. Police chief Murray (Jim Porterfield) leads it off, even as he tries to calm everyone down. This is ensemble acting at its finest. Vinnie (Tom Whalen) as is an added oddity, a bow-tied sprite in Bermuda shorts, while Speed (David Bendena) brings in a slightly thuggish element. Who are these guys? Carefully constructed characterizations of typical guys from the New York of yesteryear.
Eventually, Oscar (Guy Sanville) comes out of the kitchen, establishing himself immediately as the slobby half of the titular couple. Soon after, Felix finally arrives — suicidal, but also Mr. Perfectionist, an anal- retentive, obsessive-compulsive neatnik of a guy. He’s a bundle of frenetic energy, like Woody Allen on speed.
Oscar makes the mistake of inviting Felix to be his roommate. It doesn’t take long for this contrast of lifestyles to create intense conflict. Each appears to be taking on the attributes of their ex-wives. Soon Oscar is demanding that Felix take a hike, go anywhere, cease to be a roommate. Sanville’s Oscar is a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and un-pressed pair of pants kind of guy, obliviously sloppy. Sporting a Chris Christie-esque hairpiece, he milks his character for all he is worth.
A second cultural subset comes crashing in when Oscar invites a set of English sisters out for dinner, but Felix insists on cooking at home instead. The Pigeon sisters are some of the funniest comic Bimbos one can imagine. Gwendolyn (Michelle Mountain) is the older and more loopy sister. The other, Cecily (Rhiannon Ragland), comes perilously close to pouring out her bosoms as she bends over in syrupy sympathy for down and out Felix. David Montee, our stalwart Felix, does his best work in the scene with the sisters, balancing genuine awkwardness with over-the-top tearfulness.
Eventually, the conflict resolves into genuine tenderness. Felix goes on to live for a while with Gwendolyn, and the poker games resume for Oscar.
Is there a serious life lesson in the humor of this play, something for long term married couples to hang on to? Maybe it is this: Make sure there is room for light-hearted humorous spaces in one’s togetherness.
“The Odd Couple”
Through March 26
3 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
$25-$43 (discounts available for groups, seniors teachers, military and students)
The Purple Rose Theatre
137 Park St., Chelsea
(734) 433-7673, purplerosetheatre.org