CEDAR CITY — After being thrown out of the house by his wife, and with nowhere else to turn, Felix Unger moves in with his longtime friend, Oscar Madison. Before long, the fastidious Felix and the slob Oscar are at each other throats. Their disagreements form the plot of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s classic play that made him a household name.
What makes the Utah Shakespeare Festival production different from most is the decision to have Festival co-artistic directors Brian Vaughn and David Ivers switch roles and play Felix and Oscar on opening nights. For the September 16 production that I attended, Vaughn played Oscar and Ivers played Felix.
Regardless of who must play each leading role, The Odd Couple can only succeed if the timing of the jokes works well. Under J. R. Sullivan’s careful direction, Simon’s script is a masterpiece of comedic timing, and each joke was successful in producing the maximum possible laughs. Whether it is a quick joke in the dialogue (such as Felix telling Vinny—played by Kipp Moorman—to eat over his plate so that he won’t drop crumbs on the carpet), or the physical humor (e.g., Oscar chasing Felix around the couch) the timing of the humor is impeccable in every minute of the play. The result is an unceasingly funny show.
But what makes The Odd Couple work is not just the humor, but the relationship between the two main characters. Many people think that Oscar and Felix hate each other, but the reality is that Oscar would not invite Felix into his apartment if they weren’t friends. Sullivan wisely spent time in the first act carefully developing the relationship between the two characters. This raised the emotional stakes of Felix and Oscar’s arguments because it seemed like a years-long friendship was in danger of falling apart if Felix sprayed air freshener around the apartment one more time.
Vaughn plays Oscar as a masculine slob with a heart of gold. Vaughn showed that the role has a surprisingly wide range, and he was successful in his portrayal in any situation in Simon’s script. At different moments in the play, Vaughn was inspiring (e.g., when he tells Felix he was unique), hilarious (complaining about notes left around the apartment), or disgusting at different moments in the show.
But my greatest commendation goes to Ivers, whose Felix was more multidimensional than I thought was possible for the role. Ivers was so convincing and touching in the role that I genuinely started to feel guilty for laughing at Felix’s pain. It is easy to let Felix be a bundle of neuroses, but Ivers avoided this sort of caricature, and instead presented Felix as just a very fastidious and exacting person. This care in creating a real character instead makes the play more engrossing and the ending more satisfying.
The entire supporting cast contributed to the performances of the lead actors, and I was impressed by how they made the dated sitcom-like dialogue seem natural. Oscar’s poker buddies had the camaraderie that would be expected after years of friendship. I enjoyed the naïve charm that Moorman gave to Vinny, and Rex Young was a nice as a humorous yet hardened police officer. His presence gave the poker game a bit of gravitas.
But no discussion of the supporting cast would be complete without mentioning Melinda Parrett and Melissa Graves, who played Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, respectively. Most of the second act of the play concerns a double date between the Pigeon sisters and Oscar and Felix. Parrett and Graves were completely batty, and the comic interplay between them and then men was unceasingly amusing. The progression of the British sisters’ emotions as the date wore on was one of the most rewarding long-term jokes in the play.
One of the things that made the appearance of the Pigeon sisters so enjoyable was their costumes, designed by Bill Black. Their dresses exuded a Jackie Kennedy-like elegance, and it helped establish the time period of the play’s setting more firmly. Also commendable was the set for Oscar’s apartment (designed by Jo Winiarski). The spacious living room seemed large enough for Oscar’s now-absent apartment, and the upstage exits implied the presence of several more rooms beyond the audience’s view.
In short, I found everything in the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Odd Couple to be laudable. Whether audience members are looking for superb acting or just a good time, The Odd Couple is an ideal choice. My only regret about seeing this production is that I was unable to see Vaughn and Ivers switch roles. So—for the first time in any review—I recommend that readers catch this show twice.