THEATER REVIEW

At Theater J, a graceful and nuanced revival of classic 'Odd Couple'

GUY TALK: "The Odd Couple's" Rich Foucheux, left, Delaney Williams, Marcus Kyd, J. Fred Shiffman, Paul Morella and Michael Willis.
GUY TALK: "The Odd Couple's" Rich Foucheux, left, Delaney Williams, Marcus Kyd, J. Fred Shiffman, Paul Morella and Michael Willis. (Stan Barouh)
By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Let's start with the Friday-night group of guys in "The Odd Couple," that laughably jangly bunch at odds over poker, playing on a table strewn with food and beer. On one side, the cards are being shuffled by Murray the cop, practically one by one. On the other, an impatient buddy -- Speed -- clenches his fist and sucks his teeth in exasperation, waiting in vain for the deal.

Thus begins the symphony of camaraderie and agitation that is Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," which is being revived merrily, and with relish for the details of annoying masculinity, at Theater J.

Delaney Williams is a big teddy bear as Murray, sweet and dim, while Marcus Kyd's gritted-teeth performance as Speed neatly sets up Williams's plaintive punch lines. As Roy, Paul Morella is a 1960s vision of manly bland imagination (black trousers, white shirt, heavy glasses), while Michael Willis, as Vinnie, amusingly coos over sandwiches (such guy bliss!) with Williams.

Of course, any account of "The Odd Couple" ought to begin with The Guys, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. But there is something in the essentially gentle connectedness around the poker table that establishes the course of Jerry Whiddon's funny and unusually attentive production. The pokes in the ribs are nudges, not jabs, and that's the tone with Rick Foucheux and J. Fred Shiffman as Oscar and Felix. They're eternally indulgent pals, even when they want to gouge each other's eyes out.

That doesn't mean that Whiddon and company have sobered up this great American comedy, which is as hard-wired as any in our culture. (Oscar's the slob, Felix is unbearably neat and curiously handy in the kitchen, and both their wives have left them for reasons that become obvious as they drive each other nuts.) Simon keeps the gags coming, and this cast of accomplished D.C. actors is too savvy to let his primo punch lines go to waste.

As for Foucheux and Shiffman, they're odd, all right. Foucheux could hardly be more dour or deadpan; his Oscar is like the bear in the room, growling at the things (increasingly, Shiffman's fastidious Felix) that rile him. He's not gloriously slovenly, despite the splendidly messy bachelor apartment set by Misha Kachman (which cleans up to gleaming once Felix moves in), but the stink of divorce hangs on this Oscar like a gloomy cloak.

Initially, Shiffman is even more restrained, especially as Felix enters in what the gang fears is a suicidal funk. It's really only a garden-variety low-grade funk, yet it's Shiffman who gradually unlocks the cuckoo factor in the play. He never reaches for laughs -- no one here does, which gives the performance a lovely grace -- and yet observe how his hips relax slightly and his face lights up when his Felix hits on a happy topic, like a favorite recipe. You crack up just watching Shiffman subtly shift Felix's weird gears.

At times, Foucheux and Shiffman may seem to be treading lightly around the long shadows of the stars who have famously played these roles before. Their approach is neither clownish nor cartoonish, even though Simon's vessel will accommodate such grand foolery, and thus this show isn't as explosive as "The Odd Couple" can be. Maybe that's inevitable: today's not-for-profit theaters are sober entities (it comes with the mission statements and fundraising), and they have long aimed themselves directly away from the old Broadway and TV showbiz ethos -- the dirty boulevard.

So the show leans on nuances of character and situation, the undercurrent of absurdity and ache of men without women . . . and yet the laws of comedy are still in play. Whiddon choreographs wonderfully intricate cleaning business for Shiffman's restless Felix, who gives a sprightly rhythm to the show as he purposefully bustles in and out of the kitchen's swinging door. Lise Bruneau and Helen Pafumi are giggly delights as the Pigeon sisters, the lusty English lassies of the second act (of three); with their mod-colored dresses and broad double-entendres, they seem to have traipsed in from an Austin Powers movie.

In short, it all plays. And more than occasionally, especially when Foucheux is standing flummoxed or when Shiffman flinches with unexpected trepidation or delight, you laugh like mad.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

The Odd Couple

by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Lighting design, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, Veronika Vorel. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At the Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://boxofficetickets.com.


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