Marc Grapey is not George Wendt. He knows this.
In the Chicago theater world, Grapey is an extremely accomplished actor, having appeared this year in "Race" and "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre and in "Equivocation" at Victory Gardens Theater. But Wendt was Norm in television's "Cheers," and in Chicago he is beloved. When he came onstage for Conan O'Brien's live TV taping here in 2006, he got about a solid minute of applause. They could not get the audience to shut up.
Wendt was supposed to co-star with Tim Kazurinsky in "The Odd Couple" at Northlight Theatre, but less than a week before preview performances began he ended up in the hospital with chest pains and double bypass surgery. Grapey, who was in the cast as Murray the cop, got a call from director BJ Jones telling him that Wendt would not be able to return to the show, and that Grapey would have to be Oscar opposite Kazurinsky's Felix.
There were two days of rehearsal, and the show opened in previews Nov. 2 as scheduled. It officially opens Friday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Grapey and Kazurinsky sat together for an interview before one of those 10-hour days of rehearsal.
So what's the hardest part about taking over for George Wendt in front of a Chicago audience?
Grapey made a face, conveying this was a stupid question.
"Uh, not being George Wendt," he said.
But "The Odd Couple" is still "The Odd Couple" — Neil Simon's 1965 comedy about two mismatched, middle-aged newspapermen who find themselves sharing an apartment and a household.
"The show is the hero," Kazurinsky said. "These are still Neil Simon's lines."
Kazurinsky is not an unfamiliar face himself, having got his start at Second City in the 1970s, appearing in "Saturday Night Live" from 1981 to 1984 and then in movies such as "About Last Night" and the "Police Academy" series.
He and Wendt were together at Second City, but he has crossed paths with Grapey before and said they're finding the necessary chemistry.
"There's already a lot of trust," he said, "and that's the main thing. If something goes wrong ... no, make that when something goes wrong, we know we can help each other get out of the hole."
"We are the 'Odd Couple,'" Grapey said. "We share an apartment on stage and a dressing room offstage."
"And I'm basically Felix," Kazurinsky said. (To Grapey): "You're encroaching on my closet space, by the way."
Neil Simon's play is a classic, Grapey said. "I truly believe it takes its place beside any play of the 20th century. 'Death of a Salesman,' any of them."
"And it's funny," Kazurinsky said. "Is there any play that has more laughs per pound than this play? I don't think so."
"You're cursing it, you know," Grapey said. "We're playing to crickets on opening night."
The role of Murray has been filled by Peter DeFaria, the Chicago actor known for originating the role of Officer Doyle in "A Steady Rain." Wendt is expected to make a full recovery.
As the show's director, Jones said he's gotten emails from friends offering their support because they assumed the show was in crisis. "But it's all been barely a bump in the road, if you want to know the truth," he said. Now that Wendt's health is in the clear, "it's all been kind of fun, really," he said. "Its been energizing."
And in any case, Grapey knows a thing or two about difficult fill-in assignments. He was in "The Odd Couple" on Broadway in 2005, hired as an understudy to both Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. One night, the call came to fill in for Broderick as Felix.
The audience hated him, he said.
"You could just feel it out there," he said. "They were seething."
And who could blame them? "They'd paid their few hundred bucks, hired a sitter for the night," he said, "and instead of Broderick they get this nobody."
Now, in New York there's something called entrance applause. When a big star walks on stage for the first time, he or she gets a big ovation from the audience. In New York, they also never tamper with the play. Not ever. Not for an understudy, Grapey said. "It stays exactly the same."
"It's very by the book there, very cookie cutter," Kazurinsky said.
So for Broderick's entrance, they have him come out on stage, hang up his hat, fuss with his scarf, hang up his coat. It takes at least 45 seconds, Grapey said. Which for him were 45 seconds of dead silence.
"I come out," he said, jumping up to pantomime. "I'm hanging up my coat, my scarf, and it is the longest 45 seconds of my life. Of my life."
But then something happened, he said. Simon's play takes over. A line got a laugh, and then another and another.
"And there's this whole change that comes over," he said. "And by the end they were rooting for me, you understand?"
His Felix won them over.
'The Odd Couple'
When: Opens Friday and runs through Dec. 9
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $25-$72 at 847-673-6300 and northlight.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye