At a time when most of us are in need of a good laugh, the Fiddlehead Theatre is staging a lively production of "The Odd Couple" that should make you forget your troubles - and the world's, too - for a few hours.
Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar have become two of America's favorite comic characters since Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" opened on Broadway in 1965.
The play was made into a film three years later, adapted into a television series (1970-1975), and has become a regular of regional and community theaters. It returned to Broadway in 2005 with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles.
What makes Oscar and Felix so appealing is that most of us can probably see something of ourselves in one or the other - in the fastidious, uptight Felix or in the easy-going slob Oscar. Simon's idea of bringing them together as unlikely housemates in Oscar's eight-room New York City apartment was brilliant.
At a time when most of us are in need of a good laugh, the Fiddlehead Theatre is staging a lively production of the comedy that should make you forget your troubles - and the world's, too - for a few hours.
You don't have to be a big Neil Simon fan to find yourself howling over this production. Simon's shows can depend too much on the slinging of one-liners, to the point that we become overly aware of his presence and cleverness as a playwright. This play is packed with witty one-liners, to be sure. But director Stacey Stephens understands that to make this material click the actors need to plumb the heart of the characters. And as they do, they draw us in, win our hearts, cause us to wince with recognition, and laugh at their attitudes and actions. This makes the laugh lines seem much more natural, as if they were a kind of frosting on the cake.
With David Costa as casting director, Fiddlehead has chosen two superb actors to play Oscar and Felix. Chris Conte is a spontaneous and physical Oscar, leaping over the back of the couch to take a seat on it, breaking open a large bag of chips so they go flying into the face of his poker-playing buddies and seizing with enthusiasm whatever life offers him, whether it's the chance to share his home with Felix or to pursue the giggling Pigeon sisters who live upstairs. All of his enthusiasm and free spirit make one forgive his messy ways.
Brad Blake so understands Felix from the inside out - his self-absorption, his fears, his inability to forget his soon-to-be ex-wife (with whom he never got along), his physical tensions, his excessive cleanliness, his fussiness and his sobbing over his broken marriage - that one can't help but find him lovable. You'll be grateful, though, that you're in the audience, they're on the stage and you don't have to live with either one of these guys.
The opening scene has Oscar and his fellow poker players wondering what has happened to Felix as they wait for him to arrive. The scene drags a bit - maybe because of the way it's written or maybe because the actors haven't fully found its life. It picks up when the suicidal Felix arrives and the guys pretend it's just another evening at the poker chips but can't hide their deep concern for him, asking if he's really going to the john alone. At this point, it still feels as if it's more about the playwright's cleverness than about the characters themselves.
But once Oscar and Felix are left with each other, they take on a life that feels very real and psychologically true. Before the first act comes to an end, you know that Felix will clean up the entire mess of an apartment. Be sure to stick around during the first intermission to watch him actually do it. With a final, wonderful touch, he places antimacassars on the furniture, as if the apartment belongs to Oscar's elderly aunt.
Blake's Felix is a hoot putting a paper napkin in each poker player's lap and asking to see the men's coasters before giving them a drink. "I'm stuck with Mary Poppins 24 hours a day," says Oscar. The other guys complain about Felix, too. But in one charming moment, we realize an appreciation of him is beginning to bud when James Bocock as Murray and Bob Parsons as Vinnie praise the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich Felix has carefully made.
One of the highlights of the show is the scene in which Alyssa Trasher as Gwendolyn Pigeon and Liza Hammond as Cecily Pigeon, two English sisters who live upstairs, come down for dinner. Trasher and Hammond perfectly capture the girls' cuckoo manner that comes across as naive, naughty to a point and totally endearing. Without calling too much attention to it, they adopt the small, careful steps, the head bobbing and the cooing of their winged namesake. Their response to Felix is one of the most delightful aspects of the show.
Before it's all over, Oscar and Felix get into a big fight with each other. You'd think Oscar would easily prevail, but don't count out Felix with his subtle ways of fighting back.
Stephens not only directed the show but designed the large apartment with its appropriately drab '60s furniture and the period costumes that should get their own chuckle.
What makes this show so rewarding is it's more than just a hilarious comedy. It's a rich character study, too - of people who may bear some resemblance, hopefully faint, to you and me.
WHAT: "The Odd Couple" by Neil Simon
WHEN: Through March 29
WHERE: Fiddlehead Theatre, 109 Central St., Norwood
INFO: 781-762-0528; www.fiddleheadtheatre.com