'Odd Couple': Midlife crisis tale ages gracefully

The bar for what qualified as "odd" in 1965, we so easily forget, was not so high. A couple of unrelated men living together qualified — especially if one of them actually liked to dust, could cook up a tasty London broil and found it easy to cry the odd river. You might say that Neil Simon's 1965 comedy, "The Odd Couple," the quintessential Simon yukfest, prefigured the shift in the domestic culture that would eventually land us in the territory of "Will and Grace," or even that it anticipated the much-discussed male financial crisis of the last decade or so. For sure, not long after this play hit, some women — including the likes of the Pigeon sisters, the play's short-skirted objects of desire — were figuring out that their horizons need not be limited to the secretarial pool.

Still, this play is probably best understood and enjoyed as more the marker of the end of an era than the beginning of some new, disrupted normal. Unlike, say, "Mad Men," which generally depicts the men of the 1960s as sexually sophisticated and active, "The Odd Couple" serves as a useful reminder that 1965 had far more geeks and slobs lurking in its Manhattan apartments than there were Don Drapers gliding from one beautiful set of arms to another.

The Northlight Theatre production, directed by BJ Jones, was conceived as a vehicle for George Wendt to play the slob, Oscar Madison, and his former Second City accomplice Tim Kazurinsky to play the geek, Felix Unger — a pairing that already had entertained audiences in Kansas City, Mo. That double-act had to be put on ice temporarily when Wendt landed in hospital for bypass surgery (he is doing well now but won't be returning to this production) and Marc Grapey stepped up from the poker table to fill Wendt's shoes in Skokie.

Grapey, of course, is a different, younger type from Wendt, although a very decent and experienced comic actor in his own right. In his hands, Oscar becomes more of a normative character in Jones' production — the regular, divorced, deadpan dude — allowing Kazurinsky the floor when it comes to forging a deeply neurotic little man who is a great deal of fun to watch, precisely because Kazurinsky imbues him so many little details.

The result is a funny and enjoyable production of the kind of domestic American farce that's now a vanishing breed (some would say vanished, and good riddance). The early action is underpaced, especially in the disappointing poker game sections, where William Dick, Peter DeFaria, Bruce Jarchow and Phil Ridarelli have their funny moments but some of the physical business lacks a comedic pay-off. And the predictable visuals (the onstage apartment is surprisingly bland and devoid of personality) don't bring any particular laughs or sharpness to the party. Those are the generally minor weaknesses.

For Grapey and Kazurinsky are a great deal of fun together, and, crucially, quite poignant in the scenes where the play dances around the comic edges of what it feels like to be lonely and rejected in middle age. Once Felix and Oscar are picking the comedic fruits of incompatibility in the core of this brilliantly structured play — fruits that Simon knew how to harvest sustainably, so they never seem to run out — the show finds its rhythm. And once the Pigeon sisters (the terrific Molly Glynn and Katherine Keberlein) show up, it finds more than enough zest and sparkle to put a broad smile on your face. I got a big kick Friday night watching a guy a few rows across from me who'd slumber in his seat, only to be attacked by guffaws every time Kazurinsky made a twitch. What's not to love about that after a tough week at work?

Actually, when you first meet Kazurinsky's Felix, he strikes you as too broad to function in this play. But Kazurinsky, an unusual but shrewd actor, has a way of first showing you the terrified shell of a man in crisis and then slowly filling it in in such an organic way that, by the end of the night, everything makes perfect human sense. The brilliance of Kazurinsky's work flows from how much he keeps his Felix in motion and how much he gambles on throwing his guy out there as far as he can, only to then rush to get his creation back, with realistic underpinning.

Grapey's no slouch here, either, especially given his lack of rehearsal. He offers a hound-dog expression and skilled, sardonic delivery as the play requires, but he also shows us a cooped-up man who still badly wants to be a player but fears seeing life's myriad possibilities disappear inside Felix's vacuum cleaner. Don't we all?


Through Dec. 9 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 2 hours, 15 minutes; tickets: $25-$72 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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