Oct. 19 2016 12:26 AM

Gender-swapped ‘The Odd Couple’ puts a twist on Neil Simon’s classic play

“The Odd Couple” play I saw Friday night took more than a few odd turns, even with the original odd characters created by oddball playwright Neil Simon. The Starlight Dinner Theatre’s production still had an Unger and a Madison — but not Felix and Oscar.

Instead, Florence and Olive occupied the lead roles. Charlotte Ruppert neatly handled the neat-freak, neurotic Florence Unger, while Rachel Mender smoothly managed the unsmooth, untidy Olive Madison. Other gender swaps included the Costazuela brothers, replacing the original’s Pigeon sisters. Darryl Schmitz added some childish, Spanish-ish charm as tallish brother Jesus, while Bobby Maldonado as dominating, shorter sibling Manolo, was beguiling with his scene-stealing acting and chirruping.

In Simon’s female version, the poker game is swapped out for “Trivial Pursuit.” The gang of players in Starlight’s show was a collection of zany ladies — each a card in her own right.

Beth Noecker Webb was Vera, a seemingly naïve lady with hints of a racy side. Jean Burk, as Renee, was more of an everywoman no one could really dislike. Jan Ross —also the producer and co-director — added comedic embellishments to the Mickey-the-cop character. Kylie Rae Bisel Densmore, in the role of the colorfully dressed Sylvie, added a contrasting character to the colorful collection.

Minor struggles with the rhythm and speed of dialogue were petty distractions, as the cast’s fun on stage helped the audience have fun. And unlike the familiar “The Odd Couple” TV show, no recorded laugh track was required. The nearly full house provided a steady stream of genuine laughs.

Not-so-simple Simon sexual innuendos and sophisticated references fill the revised script — giving the audience plenty to chuckle about. The firmly-set-in-the-‘80s dialogue, however, did seem a bit outdated at times. There was also the dilemma of showcasing the conflict between two opposite and annoying personalities. Well-played, well-known irritating characters can be, well, irritating.

I never got weary, though, of the complex set by Bob Gehris and Jim Lorenz. The multi-door, opening-to-a-kitchen and real closet constructions were impressive —especially for a stage in a middle school cafeteria. Walls did not look like mere flats. Details like extra trim and built-in shelves with accessories added class and authenticity. So did Starlight’s tradition of having table decorations to suit the play. (In this case, real “Trivial Pursuit” cards.)

Director Lisa Sodman Elzinga aptly managed to maneuver the actors in and out of doors and around furnishings, keeping the often wild antics under control. The task might be compared to an air traffic controller trying to control a swarm of bees.

Act I lasted 45 minutes, and the three-scene Act II lasted an hour. I only know that because I looked at my watch at start and stop times. Those were the only moments I paid attention to my timepiece during any piece of the fast-moving Starlight show.

Unlike many better-funded local theater companies, Starlight’s introductory curtain speech lacked the good fortune of major donors, sponsors or public grants to thank. The voice had only Starlight’s loyal audience to acknowledge for making the performance possible — a smiling audience that left with the appearance they got their money’s worth.

“The Odd Couple” (female version)
Starlight Dinner Theatre
6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 and Saturday, Oct. 22; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Show and dinner: $36/$33 students and seniors; show only: $15/$14 students and seniors
Waverly East Intermediate School
3131 W. Michigan Ave., Lansing
(517) 599-2779, starlightdinnertheatre.com