‘The Odd Couple’ proves slapstick sticks11/13/2013
Is it possible for slapstick to grow old? Once you know the gag with the spaghetti on the wall — no, not spaghetti, linguine, and that’s another joke — how many times can it deliver a laugh? The answer in West Des Moines: plenty. Slapstick comedy continues to bubble up the yucks, this time in the form of that rich ferment of male bonding known as “The Odd Couple.”
The comedy first made Neil Simon’s fortune back in 1965 in a long Broadway run, and it’s translated successfully to film and TV. The dilemma of a slob and a neatnik sharing a Manhattan apartment, after all, presents the quintessence of “situation comedy.” With all that still fresh in memory, the current production on Tallgrass Theater seems a risk. Happily, Simon’s inspiration proves durable.
This success depends on the couple themselves: Oscar the overgrown frat-rat and Felix the finicky chef, the cleaning crew and others. These two get yoked together as old friends reeling from recent divorces, and one of the accomplishments of the Tallgrass production is how it convinces us that these opposites do attract. Bob Baskerville’s Oscar and Jim Benda’s Felix express their differences through physical language. Baskerville, in a departure from his earlier tragic roles (especially a Neil LaBute solo for the Fringe Festival), throws his gut into every sloppy stride, and Benda sharpens the peacock poses we’ve glimpsed in his Stagewest turns; stiff-necked, he leads with his chin. When these two talk, however, the sparring achieves paradoxical communion. Oscar’s greater volubility reveals even more in Baskerville’s whiskey growls and stubborn childishness, while Felix, in Benda’s tenor flutings, challenges his friend with unashamed grieving and an occasional one-liner to match anything from across the room. As they shuffle closer to adulthood, Baskerville and Benda embody just the right sort of slow learners.
This growth is measured out across three poker games, three Friday nights at Oscar’s, and ideally, the rest of the cast whirls around like a cardsharp’s shuffle. The secondaries in “Odd Couple” should flash by, all quirk and punch-line, and Paul Strand seems the standout here, as his Vinnie is simultaneously compassionate and a pain. But as he and the others prod each act toward four- or six-way silliness, at climax, the effect can feel stiff. The set design, by Tracy Stewart, serves the give-and-take, opposing the table and kitchen door to the sofa and front door. Yet the seesawing back and forth lacks the necessary frenzy. Also the two “British birds upstairs” barely manage the accent; you can hear the Midwestern “o,” but then, this production made me realize that these two dotty girls share the same names as those in Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Ernest”; both these takedowns of domestic bliss feature Gwendolyn and Cecily. Was the smart-mouthed New Yorker acknowledging, slyly, his play’s implications of gay housekeeping (otherwise completely ignored), or was he saying, simply, that he wanted what Oscar had — jokes that never grow old? CV
John Domini is Cityview’s new “Play Mate” theater critic who will pen our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.