By Aaron Krause
The zingers in the female version of The Odd Couple sound familiar but hardly stale like something that has remained in Olive Madison’s refrigerator for who knows how long.
Rather, when you hear the wisecracks today, you welcome them as you would greet a dear old friend whom you haven’t seen in ages. Perhaps that is because we badly need laughter in a world in which bad news seems to surround us. And there are few better than the late Neil Simon (1927-2018) when it comes to making audiences laugh.
Boca Stage (formerly Primal Forces) in Boca Raton has mounted a laugh-filled professional production of Simon’s hit, which you are not to confuse with his play written in 1965. If you will recall, The Odd Couple from that year focused on the mismatched pair of Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, two divorced male friends who decide to live together and then drive each other crazy.
On the other hand, Boca Stage is performing the female version of The Odd Couple, which Simon penned in 1985. It focuses on the mismatched pair of Olive Madison and Florence Ungar, two divorced female friends who decide to live together and cannot get along.
While the plot and particulars are basically the same, there are differences. For instance, instead of poker in the original play, the ladies of this version gather in Olive’s New York City Apartment in 1985 to play Trivial Pursuit.
You can watch them play, and Florence (Patti Gardner) and Olive (Amy London) bicker, through April 2 in Boca Stage’s performance space.
Theaters do not get much more intimate than Boca Stage, which features four rows of audience seating. As a result, we feel like flies on the wall as we watch the action, and the characters’ emotions come across more powerfully in such a small space.
The onstage and off-stage talent shines in Boca Stage’s production. It features talented performers familiar to South Florida theatergoers. These actors demonstrate deft comic timing and play their parts with sincerity.
As you may know, at the beginning of the female version of The Odd Couple, Florence has just broken up with her husband of 24 years. Her friends, who are gathered in Olive’s apartment for Trivial Pursuit, learn the news and become worried about her. Soon after, a depressed-looking Florence arrives at the apartment and the women fear that she will kill herself.
After the game ends, Olive comforts Florence, who moves in with her. They live together until the pair can no longer stand each other. That, essentially, is the plot of The Odd Couple, during which zingers fly fast and frequently. As is the case with the male version, some one-liners are funnier than others.
But the zingers are not the only source of comedy in this classic play. We may also laugh because the characters remind us of ourselves or somebody we know or love. And, of course, it is hard to keep a straight face when, for instance, we witness Olive throwing linguini (not spaghetti!!) against the wall to spite Florence. Such slapstick is present in the play, as are the odd sounds that Florence makes while trying to unclog her ears.
Miscommunication between people representing two different cultures can also produce laughs, as it does here. While the original play featured the British Pigeon Sisters, this version features two divorced Hispanic brothers, Jesus Costazuela and Manolo Costazuela. They live in Olive’s apartment building, and she has invited them to have a meal and drinks with her and Florence.
Rio Chavarro and Juan Gamero inject the brothers with believable gentlemanly demeanors. In addition, the performers convincingly convey romantic qualities that would endear their characters to many ladies. For example, they take each woman’s hands and kiss them. As the siblings talk alone with Florence, they, like her, become emotional. To their credit, Chavarro and Gamero ensure they sound and look natural during this time.
While the brothers share similar traits, Florence and Olive could not be more different. And under Keith Garsson’s careful direction, London and Gardner clearly differentiate their characters from each other.
Gardner, sporting neatly set brown hair as Florence, scrunches her face into believable and vivid expressions of emotional pain. In addition, she tenses her body parts in a manner that looks natural. When frustration sets in, Gardner’s Florence closes her hands into fists which shake. As Gardner embodies her, pained expressions also emanate from Florence’s voice without sounding exaggerated.
Contrastingly, London remains loose, casual, and seemingly carefree as Olive. She speaks in a mild-mannered voice and injects Olive with a credible air of independence. Strands of reddish-brown hair hang over the front of Olive’s face, a stark contrast from Florence’s neatly set hairdo.
As Olive grows increasingly annoyed with Florence, the former’s voice becomes sharper. However, London makes sure that Olive never becomes unpleasant.
In fact, each actor in the cast creates a distinct character.
In addition to Gardner and London, an observant Elizabeth Price portrays police officer Mickey, a plain-spoken Elissa D. Solomon embodies the single Renee, a sweet but somewhat spacy Leah Sessa portrays Vera, and a good-humored Sara Elizabeth Grant takes on the role of Sylvie.
Ardean Landhuis has designed a spacious and sturdy-looking set of Olive’s New York City apartment, lit by Desirae Merritt’s realistic lighting. The set features light-colored walls, befitting a comedy. As Landhuis designed it, the apartment does not appear as messy as you might expect. Still, there are indications of Olive’s disorganization and carelessness. For instance, empty pizza boxes rest on the floor, a garment sits atop a shelf, and photographs on the wall appear crooked.
Meanwhile, Alberto Arroyo’s character-appropriate costumes include an untucked New York Yankees shirt and torn jeans for Olive, and dressier clothing for the women’s date with the brothers, who sport suits.
Garsson directs with comic energy and makes wise choices. For instance, after Olive answers the phone, she speaks while holding the phone upside down. It would be just like her not to pay attention to such small details as holding the phone upright. Also, the cast’s attention to comic timing is impressive. For example, at one point, after the doorbell rings, all sets of eyes look toward the door at once.
A competitive air exists as the women play Trivial Pursuit. They are generally strong female characters who prove that women can get along just fine without men. At one point, Olive suggests to Florence that by breaking up with her husband, she will restart her life on her own two feet and become self-sufficient. Certainly, it is an empowering message these days and brings a freshness to The Odd Couple.
With young and talented playwrights making us think in different ways, experimenting with style, and calling attention to important issues, it can be easy for theater companies to forget about late, great playwrights who made a strong impact on live theater. With that in mind, kudos to Boca Stage for not forgetting greats such as Simon, who found humor in his characters’ everyday lives. Laughter, indeed, is among the best of medicines during these turbulent, uncertain times.
Boca Stage’s production of The Odd Couple (female version) runs through April 2 at the company’s intimate playing space, located in the Shoppers Haven Shopping Center, 3333 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton. For tickets, or more information, go to https://primalforces.com, send an email to email@example.com, or call (561) 300-0152.