by Neil Simon
Speed – Kia Nicole Boyer*
Murray – Blake Henri
Roy – Guinn Powell
Vinnie – Andrew Nicolas
Oscar Madison – Durrell Lyons
Felix Ungar – Duke Anderson*
Gwendolyn Pigeon – Kenzie Henderson
Cecily Pidgeon – Sarah E. Perkins
Understudy – Mark Tam Quach (3/30 and 31 as Oscar, as Murry on 4/7)
Director – Ashley Puckett Gonzales
Associate Director – Antonio Demonde Thomas
Stage Manager – Ashley Schneider
Assistant Stage Manager—Briana Collazo Abbot
Set Design – Kennedy Styron
Properties Design—Ruby Pullum
Lighting Design – Bryant Yeager
Sound Design – Rayven Harris
Costume Design – Amy Poe
Reviewed Performance: 3/30/2022
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
WaterTower Theatre is an eye-catching place to see a live theater production. The pleasant lobby has plenty of places to sit and enjoy a beverage before the show or at intermission. It opens into a cavernous space that almost has the feel of the grand theatres built in the early 20th century with all the empty space above your head. Comfortable padded bench seats and good sightlines complete the package. The only drawback is that it shares common walls with another space, and the chatter from that show lets out distracting noise during one portion of the WTT’s performance of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
My companion and I attended a preview performance. Thus, it should be noted that at this performance the role of Oscar Madison was played by understudy Mark Tam Quach.
One goes into a preview night with the understanding that the play will be nearly ready, but that it might have a few bumps or gaffes. Having an understudy performing in a lead role for a preview night is a reason to give grace to all concerned. The show we saw might not be indicative of the experience a theatergoer will have with a different cast and the time needed for the actors to settle into their roles and find the delicious small moments that give a play that has been going for over fifty years some needed fresh air.
The Odd Couple hit Broadway in 1965 and was a hit almost immediately. It spawned a movie, and a television series, as well as an update in 1985 to a female version of the play. It is one of Simon’s most performed works. Its origin story is a bit murky. There are claims that Simon’s brother came up with the idea initially. The other version is that it was inspired by Simon’s observations of Mel Brooks during his separation from his first wife. Most of us know the story and many of its great lines by heart. Indeed, as we were walking out of the theatre, a patron was whistling the iconic soundtrack from the 1970s sitcom featuring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
Duke Anderson’s Felix is a sad sack when we first meet him. The actor did a great job with the iconic moments we all know – the ‘honking’ to clear his ears, the sudden stabs of pain he gets throwing a cup. Anderson’s stiff spine and contained physicality were excellent, a skilled actor inhabiting his role. His little mincing steps, the slightly upturned chin when affronted, and his OCD fixation on crumbs and dropped chips were a delight. This character can turn into a big whiner in the wrong hands, but Anderson kept us loving him even when he was his most annoying.
Mark Tam Quach gave Oscar his all. It was an interesting take on the role. Quach’s Oscar was less grumpy, less intimidating, and more hopeful and spritelier than classic versions. He came across as a kind person, as opposed to the classic bullying Oscar. The one where you kind of think he just might chuck Felix out the window if pushed. Quach’s verbal pace was astonishing, whipping out long lengths of lines with barely a breath in some of Oscar’s longer monologues. To his credit, he was also extremely present in the role, focused on the other actors, giving as much as he was taking in his exchanges.
However, a play like The Odd Couple must have chemistry between the two leads for it to work. The leads also need to be utter opposites. These two actors were not opposites, especially in the second act as Oscar picked up Felix’s phrasing, rather than keeping the verbal terseness he’d started with. The pairing didn’t have chemistry, although both actors were working extremely hard to do their absolute best. To their credit, they frequently hit the right notes, even without the “best friends who make each other crazy” undertone to bolster their efforts. You cannot get there without rehearsals, and an understudy will never get enough of those.
The actresses playing the chirpy Pigeon Sisters (Kenzie Henderson as Gwendolyn, Sarah E. Perkins as Cecily) were pushing too hard on this preview night, both within the show and in the extra bits the director has given them before the show and during set changes. Their broad Manchester accents slipped away from them often, although the choice of using those broad A’s is a fun one, rather than the clipped classic British we usually hear. Their bawdiness was also entertaining. As soon as they settle in and trust the material, they’ll be delightful. Henderson and Perkins played off of each other well.
The motley crew of poker players worked wonderfully together, with Kia Boyer’s Speed and Blake Henri’s Murry being particular standouts. Both of these actors inhabited their roles marvelously. They landed their lines with ease and physically embraced their roles. Boyer’s Speed was the best interpretation of this role that I’ve seen. I also quite enjoyed Guinn Powell and Andrew Nicolas in their respective roles. Powell had a terrific aloofness as if he were lowering himself somewhat to be with these men, while Nicolas clearly loved his wife and his dark rye with equal fervor. When the poker players are haranguing each other, you can feel the long friendships that hold them together. The variety of tone and character was fun and well-executed by the creative, diverse cast.
The director cast the show well. Ashley Puckett Gonzales has set the play in its original space of the mid-1960s. Her vision of the show focuses on the tried-and-true broad comedy aspects of this piece, with no time to linger on the painful realities that underly the play of suicide, loneliness, and divorce. She’s painting in broad strokes. Gonzales has the cast speaking at a rapid clip throughout, matched with constant frenetic movement across the large, multi-level set. The comedy of this piece can absolutely work with the characters being played as caricatures rather than angst-driven men struggling to find their way in new circumstances and saying outrageous things to each other in the process, and this seems to be Gonzales’ choice. The cast is certainly up to the task of finding the bits and schticks to coax laughter from the audience. Maybe a bit of fluff is what we all need these days, and depth of feeling can be saved for another time.
The set works for Watertower’s production which was designed by Kennedy Styron. The placement of the kitchen is inspired, as are the dual levels, giving the director the gift of lots of space to keep us visually entertained. The wall phone with an extra-long cord was also a great choice, although the actors were miming pushing numbers into the phone rather than using its rotary dial. The set seemed a bit barren, particularly on the upstage wall, while being fully filled with props in others. Perhaps the set and prop design weren’t quite finished for our performance. This is not the battered, sturdy, comfortable bachelor pad one normally sees. Instead, the design is one that feels like the flimsy old Laugh-In sets. Brightly colored squares are painted on the floor, and the door has a Mondrian-themed design that was a bit distracting, as was the giant platform couch center stage. Oscar’s chair, on the other hand, was beaten-in perfection.
Rayven Harris’s Sound Design is an array of music from the catalog of the 60s and the supportive lighting was created by Bryant Yeager. Both designers worked in solid harmony to enhance the show. The production crew was spot-on with all sound and light cues during the show. It was a little disconcerting to see the actors mic’d for the show, but perhaps the big space requires it. Props (Designed by Ruby Pullum) were also good, although the substitution of cigarettes for Oscar’s trademark cigars was disappointing. Amy Poe’s costumes were not the expected ones, with Oscar being better dressed and tidier than we normally see him, even when just wearing an undershirt. Perhaps it was the actor’s charm and panache that made it seem that way. Her costuming for the Pigeon sisters was just right. WaterTower Theatre can be relied upon to give patrons a fun, professionally run evening, and Neil Simon is a classic comedy playwright for a reason. The actors will have no doubt have found their rhythm by the time this review publishes. It felt good to laugh again and find delight in a show that is as comfortable as Oscar Madison’s easy chair. If you haven’t been out to the theatre in a while, this would be a wonderful place to start.
The Odd Couple at WaterTower Theatre runs March 30-April 10th
Tickets are available through their website: www.watertowertheatre.org