KPBS AIRDATE: February 19, 1992
One thought kept running through my mind, all during the female “Odd Couple” — why’d you do it, Neil? The original male version, which opened in 1965, became Neil Simon’s most popular play, spawning a movie and a TV spinoff, endless reruns and a million laughs. So why, twenty years later, did Simon feel compelled to transexualize the comedy? It’s anybody’s guess. But it’s just not as funny as the original.
First off, a fussbudget, persnickety, neat-freak female doesn’t cut it as a comic situation, though a compulsively slobby woman is potentially funny. Feminists versus old-fashioned gals is, well, limp. Fortunately, Simon retained some of the original hilarious lines. I’ll never forget that note Felix left on Oscar’s pillow. “”We need cornflakes,” it read. And then said Oscar, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. meant Felix Unger.”
The line is still in, but Felix is now Florence . And Oscar is Olive. What was amazing to me is that, my major beef about the Sweetooth production is the same one the New York critics had about the 1985 Broadway production. Each of the two lead actresses seems to be cast in the wrong role. Critics noted that Sally Struthers, who played Flo, never looked neat. And Rita Morena was not very messy. Same here.
Jill Drexler is a knockout. No matter what she does or wears, she looks gorgeous. Her hair is perfect, her makeup and her nails are perfect, her every outfit is flawless. She can put a baseball cap on backwards, but she still looks perfectly put together.
Teri Orr, on the other hand, is wonderfully neurotic as fastidious Flo. But she never looks fastidious. Her hair is flopping over, her outfits are not prim and proper and hyper-feminine, as they should be to fit the finicky, old-fashioned Flo.
I have no complaints about either one’s acting. They handle their roles wonderfully, and their delivery is convincing — Drexler tough and assertive, Orr frequently hysterical, though she should seem more terrified and timorous when her marriage falls apart at the beginning. We need to see a real transition in her, and the change just isn’t that noticeable.
Nonetheless, if those two were the only ones onstage, plus the two funny Spanish guys from upstairs (humorously played by Jose Ruiz and Vinny Ferrelli), all would be well. But when the other women are there for the weekly game of Trivial Pursuit — which weakly replaces the original male-bonding poker — everything comes to a halt. None of the supporting actresses has adopted a clearly defined character. You can barely tell them apart. The pace slows dramatically during those scenes. I should say, undramatically.
Director Margo Essman has tried to keep the action brisk. Her husband Gene has designed a delightful set, but the difference between Oscar’s place pre- and post-Flo isn’t striking enough.
As co-founder of Sweetooth Comedy Theatre, Essman was intent on finding plays with good roles for women. Now she needs to find the right women to fill them. In its three years of existence, Sweetooth has shown that it has both taste and guts. This is the most mainstream production so far. Next up is the taut and terrific, “Equus,” which departs from the group’s comic moniker. It will be another stretch. And that’s the direction this plucky little company needs to continue to pursue.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.