Published in Gay and Lesbian Times August 8, 2002
You gotta love Oscar Wilde — his influence pops up in the most amazing places. No fewer than four San Diego productions feature characters named Gwendolyn and Cecily: (from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The most surprising of all is Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple, presented by San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre.
Although they play a small role as dates of the sloppy Oscar and finicky Felix, the tittering Pigeon sisters (Gwendolyn and Cecily) are a bright spot in the BET production. Ann Tran is particularly humorous, and she’s joined by Kimberly Miller in a comical chorus of giggles.
The conceit of the production is as interesting as the backstory. Rhys Greene and Walter Murray are co-founders of BET, and anyone who knows them agrees that they actually are The Odd Couple. Last year, there was a lot of buzz when this production was announced. But then, one of them took sick and the piece was postponed indefinitely. After it was rescheduled for this summer, another delay was necessary, since BET lost its homebase, the one year-old McDonald Mori Performing Arts Center in North Park, which was forced to shut its doors due to Fire Code concerns.
In the interim, the show lost its director (Don Loper, who’s now appearing in both productions at North Coast Rep), so artistic director Green stepped in) and its stage manager, then the troupe had to move into a new space (the Academy of Sound and Music) and decrease its run (from four weeks to three).
Despite high energy and expectations, and the best of intentions, the production seems to have suffered from all these indignities. The players haven’t quite inhabited their characters; everyone just seems to be trying so hard. A primary problem is the casting. It may have been a directorial or a collaborative decision to cast against type, but Murray still looks tidy even at his messiest, and Greene, though he acts high-strung and neurotic, never convinces as a neatnik. When they dress up for their evening with the Pigeons, Murray’s Oscar is impeccably attired, while Green’s Felix still looks rumpled and unkempt. Greene always plays ‘angry’ best, but that isn’t who Felix is at all. Murray has many more moments of credibility, especially as he gets more frustrated and even hops nimbly over the furniture.
The poker buddies are pretty much window-dressing; the performances are adequate, but they underscore the fact that these are one-dimensional, cardboard characters; each has a single personality trait which is repeated to annoying effect; the supposedly tough cop is a softy, the accountant is logical and sensible, etc.
There doesn’t seem to be any reason that a story about a guy who gets separated from his wife and moves in temporarily with his divorced poker-pal should feel dated — but there’s a mustiness this production wears like a cloak. Truth be told, even Simon’s recent retooling of the play, for a production at the Geffen Theatre in L.A. (“Oscar and Felix, A New Look at ‘The Odd Couple,'” starring TV notables John Larroquette and Joe Regalbuto, of “Night Court’ and ‘Murphy Brown,’ respectively) garnered mixed reviews at best. So maybe the 1965 play is passé.
Here, although the cast is multicultural, BET has taken every opportunity to make the piece more African American. The incidental music is all jazz and blues (Ella, Sammy, et al.), and when Felix naively says “I’m a brother” (referring to his family) Greene raises a Black Power fist, which gets a good laugh.
After all its transitions and changes, the production feels a bit shaky; but it should settle in over time. I couldn’t help thinking, though it would be less of a dramatic stretch, that the show would be more satisfying, and these two dynamic actors would be far funnier, if they were playing with rather than against type.
“The Odd Couple” runs through August 18, at the Academy of Sound and Music, on Kettner; 888-568-AART
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.