VERSAILLES — Earlier this season, The Woodford Theatre's interim artistic director, Trish Clark, made an executive decision to switch up the theater's April programming.
She scrapped God's Favorite, a lesser-known Neil Simon play that had been selected by the previous artistic director, in exchange for The Odd Couple, a 1965 Tony Award-winning show about mismatched roommates Oscar and Felix.
It was a good gamble. For name recognition and guaranteed laughs, The Odd Couple is a predictable success. That's probably why Simon sold the film and TV rights and why The Odd Couple has been recycled and repurposed — a film, a TV series, a cartoon, a female version and more — long before "franchise" was a buzzword.
But The Woodford Theatre's latest production is an edifying reminder of the quality of the original script.
The comedy gold is the domestic conflict between the slovenly Oscar and the obsessively tidy Felix, but the show's appeal is not just about the surface antics between a slob and a neat freak.
Their profoundly annoying behaviors force each other to re-create the circumstances of their failed marriages, and the qualities they despise in each other are the ones each needs to move on.
Evan Bergman and Timothy Hull are well cast as Oscar and Felix. Bergman's freewheeling swagger as the overly lax Oscar is a formidable foil for Hull's uptight neuroticisms as Felix.
It is particularly enjoyable to watch how the unspoken power dynamics shift over the course of their "marriage," like when Felix grills Oscar about coming home late and bemoans his ruined dinner. Bergman and Hull each brought considerable nuance to their roles, which gave the comedy weight and substance between the laughs.
Oscar and Felix's poker buddies — a tight ensemble composed of Eric Seale, Bob Singleton, Jason Paul Tate and Terry Withers — inject a tone of masculine conviviality, trading barbs and jokes with fluid timing. Romances come and go, but their friendship, symbolized by their regular poker game, is the anchor that holds their lives together.
The show has an easy, comfortable pacing, neither dragging nor racing along, and by intermission I was glad to see director Tonda-Leah Fields' nuanced approach to the play. For instance, Patrick Maloney's set design convincingly portrayed Oscar's 1960s apartment without going overboard. Kristen Aurelius' costumes were also period perfect without being campy.
But Fields let the camp fly in the second act with the appearance of Cecily and Gwendolyn, two very British women with whom Oscar arranges a double date. Rachel Lee Rogers and Sharon Jackson Thomas delivered strong , funny performances, with unwavering accents and plenty of verve, but they were a little too Ab Fab for the play they were actually in. At Sunday's matinee, they got a lot of laughs, including mine, but I thought the characterizations brought down the sophistication of the show, which until their arrival had focused on real people with humorous foibles and not humorous caricatures.
'The Odd Couple'
What: The Woodford Theatre's production of Neil Simon's 1965 play
When: 8 p.m. April 12, 13, 19, 20; and 2 p.m. April 14, 21
Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Spring Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $19, $12 students. Available at (859) 873-0648 or Woodfordtheatre.com.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.