The Odd Couple
by Neil Simon
Directed by Vincent J. Cardinal
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
at the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, through July 7
My guess is that most critics will jump into their review of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s current run of Neil Simon’s classic The Odd Couple with jokes and references to Wheel of Fortune. Why? Because this particular production features the game show’s host of almost three decades, Pat Sajak. And why won’t I take the easy road with yuckity-yuck allusions to spins and vowels and VAnna White? Mainly because it is not fair to Sajak or CRT or the rest of the hard-working actors onstage. It isn’t really fair to VAnna White, either.
To get the obvious and big question out of the way, can Sajak act? Short answer: yes. His performance as the uptight Felix Unger is not likely to erase memories of Art Carney (the original Felix on Broadway), Jack Lemmon (on film), or Tony Randall (on television). I’m not sure if he would even erase the memory of Sally Struthers as Florence Unger in the female version. I am fairly certain that is not his aim.
To the amiable Sajak’s credit, he delivers a solid, humor-filled performance that is true to the character. He captures the fussiness of Felix and occasionally manages to make one question the character’s sexuality as he frets over his pots and pans and coasters. This may not be intentional, but it was evident in the original Broadway production when The New York Times said, “Homosexuals will love it – for obvious reasons.” Sajak does not affect gay stereotypes, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves whether or not he is metrosexual, asexual, heterosexual or simply on the down low.
More importantly, Sajak has obvious chemistry with his real-life friend and army-buddy Joe Moore, the production’s Oscar Madison. What is apparent is how much fun the two are having onstage together. As Moore’s primary career is television journalist, he, like Sajak, is not completely loose onstage (especially compared to the full-time actors alongside them). In reality, it does not much matter. It’s a summer stock production of the old school variety that avoids being summer schlock and steers more toward summer schtick.
I sat in the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre going over in my mind as to what Joe Moore’s performance reminded me. His big, blustery Oscar is appropriately loud and untucked opposite Sajak’s buttoned-up obsessive Felix. Is he channeling Ralph Kramden? Almost, but Ralph wasn’t really a slob. Is it Archie Bunker? Not nearly as grouchy. The next morning it hit me: Yogi Bear. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but the New Yawk accent and over-sized fun is all there. Does this make Sajak Boo-Boo? Not quite, but like with Boo-Boo, Yogi does most of the comic heavy lifting.
Oscar’s poker buddies, portrayed by Brad Bellamy, Patrick Kerr, Murray Rubinstein and David Alan Stern, are tremendous fun and work well together as a unit. Their crackerjack timing and interplay are a highlight of the show, ably supporting the jovial duo top-lining the production. As the British Pigeon Sisters, Kathleen McNenny and Liz Larsen, liven up an already sprightly show with their merry laughter and silly humor.
Vincent J. Cardinal keeps things uptempo and fun. Although the production adheres to the 1965 milieu with a Sinatra/Montovani soundtrack, The Odd Couple still feels pretty fresh. Yes, some of it feels a wee bit dated, but the themes of opposites clashing, the lure of domesticity, the bristling against said domesticity, and the sympathy for a person who has lost their mate are all timeless.