The good folks who keep cranking out plays at Beck Center should be commended for one of the year's most delightful concepts. Currently on the boards is Neil Simon's 1965 smash The Odd Couple, undoubtedly Broadway's most well-crafted comedy since the pre-war heydays of Kaufman and Hart. Like George Orwell's indestructible houseplant, the aspidistra, it thrives in any setting: in Hollywood, on the boob tube, and even when given a sex change. Felix Unger's nasal moose calls and Oscar Madison's gangrene sandwiches have become as emblematic as George Washington's cherry tree.
Beck Center, a bastion of fierce independence, has opted not to pull just another wholesale couple out of a warehouse. Instead, they are presenting Simon's macho-Americana passion play as a tribute to another beloved piece of social history, the high school play.
One look at Don McBride's impoverished cardboard walls, spread out like a giant textbook surrounding rummage-sale furniture--all absurdly meant to represent a plush, eight-room Manhattan apartment--tells us we are at Beck High. It brings to mind a composite of high school living-room sets from Auntie Mame through You Can't Take It With You.
Adhering to that anything-to-get-the-curtain-up high school code, the cast goes through its paces with madcap diversity. One can envision director Rohn Thomas stalking the halls of Beck, grabbing reluctant actors from biology labs, shop class, and the johns.
Born in Lakewood, Jack Riley, who has made a name for himself playing neurotic dragonfly types in TV series and esoteric films, guest stars here as the Lysol-addicted Felix. Riley pulls a death-defying stunt: He filters his hypochondriac through the guise of an introverted, virginal chess-club president who has been coerced by his guidance counselor to partake in a drama to develop his social skills--and perhaps even meet a girl. He achieves perfect blandness, managing to completely obliterate the nervous force field that made him a household name to dozens.
When he goes through his various breakdowns and routines, it looks like he's being viewed from the wrong end of a telescope, shrinking into the horizon. At times, he manages to vanish completely, as though he were playing the title rabbit in Harvey. Never has adolescent ineptness been so expertly feigned by a card-carrying professional.
Dudley Swetland, paroled from a two-year sentence as the Great Lakes Theater Festival's Scrooge, turns his Oscar Madison into the archetypal class clown, the perpetual showoff who gets himself on every other page of the yearbook. Too determined and proud to merely ape Walter Matthau or Jack Klugman, he instead rented The Birdcage and does a Nathan Lane number, replicating Lane's hyper-Brooklynese speech patterns. He zooms about like Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows, stealing thunder, leaving Jack Riley's listless badger choking in the dust.
Two golden, triple-named beauty queens add head-cheerleader oomph to the proceedings. Amy Brotherton-Staskus and Sarah McClusky-Wallech, as the adeptly "coo-coo" Pidgeon sisters, give these high school shenanigans Lolita-like appeal. In a veddy British Diana Dors manner, they take the evening out of the locker room and into the Pussycat Lounge.
If Simon's plays survive past the age of Star Wars, it will be because there will always be balding, portly, middle-aged performers yearning to play his perfect encapsulations of terminally ironic, put-upon Jewish males, created with a flawless ear for nuance and knowing repartee. ("Aren't you goin' to look at your cards?" "What for? I'm gonna bluff anyway.")
Four of Beck High's Audio-Visual Club Juniors--Bob Goddard, John Busser, Kevin Coughlin, and Joe Bandille--carry the torch. They keep alive Simon's grand tradition of harassed, emasculated manhood, playing poker into eternity. Eyes a-popping, barbs a-flying, they energetically enact high priests of a culture built on pastrami, dill pickles, heartburn, and a need to be wryer than rye.
Thomas can't quite keep Riley's Felix out of rigor mortis or Swetland's Oscar out of hyperdrive. Still, he manages to keep Simon's most fully realized and overfamiliar play free from cobwebs and far less moldy than one of Oscar's sandwiches.
In this kind of production, it is rare for those who heroically labor behind the scenes to get their due, so a special note of recognition to Betty Jarvis, who missed months of bingo to adeptly "hold book." It's good scouts like Betty who keep theater thriving.
The Odd Couple, through May 30 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.