New suspects, same roundup ... still funny

REVIEW — People go to plays for their own reasons. Are you looking to have your life changed? Or did you want a few laughs in the slot between dinner and bedtime?

The concept for Neil Simon's classic "The Odd Couple" was to throw a slob and a fussbudget together and let the yuks begin. It was a thin premise, but it had Simon's funny, audience-friendly dialogue, and it got crafty performances from Art Carney as fastidious Felix and Walter Matthau as slovenly Oscar, and it was a hit on Broadway in 1968.

In subsequent incarnations it was a hit 1968 movie with Matthau and Jack Lemmon and a hit 1970s television show with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. TV seemed a good home for the tale. In its bones, it was always a sitcom.

But it didn't end there. In 1985, Simon recast the thing as "The Odd Couple, Female Version," and with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno, it was another a Broadway hit.

The production of the female version that opened Friday night at the Randall Theatre in Medford won't change anybody's life. Heck, it won't even change the way you look at roast capon. But with Dianna Warner's sure-handed direction and some infectious performances, it will make you laugh.

Mismatched roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison are now Florence Ungar and Olive Madison. Olive's visiting pals are the gals instead of the guys, and instead of poker and beer, it's Trivial Pursuit and wine. The funny Pidgeon sisters have been replaced by the funny Constanzuela brothers. Other than that, same deal.

Olive (Linda Otto) has her friends over for a game and girl talk. There's sardonic Sylvie (Victoria Simone Stewart), dim bulb Vera (Tina Astor), witty Renee (Becky Durango) and level-headed Mickey the cop (Pam Ward). But neatnik hypochondriac Flo (Robyn Duquesne Fichter) is a no-show.

There's a lot of yak yak in the first scene. Bonding, camaraderie and G-rated sex jokes among women of a certain age (told that penguins mate once a year, one blurts, "I married a penguin!"). Think "Steel Magnolias" without the illness and death.

"The Odd Couple" has also been redone as a cartoon with a dog and a cat, a TV movie, a TV series in which Oscar and Felix are African-Americans. A new version is reportedly in the works for CBS with actor Matthew Perry.

But I confess to a suspicion that this would be where the franchise finally jumped the shark. And nothing in the overly long first scene suggested otherwise. Given over to the kind of dialogue whose main function is to background the audience, it seems a clumsy construction from old-pro Simon, who if nothing else knows how to propel the action.

But things begin to move when Flo finally arrives, having been dumped by her husband, a short, cowboy boots-wearing bald man. The laughs come faster and harder as Olive and Flo become roommates and mix like oil and water. You can almost feel Olive's teeth grind as Flo arranges the nut dish or polishes the telephone cord.

Some of the funniest bits involve physical comedy from Fichter, whose hypochondriacal afflictions send her reeling around Olive's apartment with back spasms and injuries, real or imagined, to various inconvenient body parts.

You pretty much know the rest. The silliness gets ratcheted up further in the second act by the entry of the Constanzuela brothers from Spain, Manolo (Michael Serface) and Jesus (Jason Tannehill) for an at-home dinner date-cum-romance arranged by the sexually frustrated Olive.

There are goofy puns and inspired wordplay, riffs on the Spanish pronunciations of the letters V and B, on the American penchant for nicknames. Told that Flo is short for Florence, Jesus declares that his nickname is Jes (sounds like Hase).

What can I say? By this time the audience is being swept along by the play's sunny humor, and everything with the Constanzuelas, dumb or not, is just irresistibly funny.

One of comedy's traditional roles is to examine the battle of the sexes. The ways Americans thought about sex roles were changing rapidly when Simon wrote the original play in the 1960s, and that shift continued through the '70s and, despite Nancy Reagan, the '80s. And in the years since then, audiences have become used to more sophisticated treatments of the subject.

"Female Version" doesn't go there. It is very much a play about women written by a man, and it looks more to the past than the future. Its themes aren't sex roles or social change but perennial ones of friendship, love and aging.

Warner and company have updated minor details. This is a world with cellphones and George Clooney, although John Elway seems to be playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and other references are all over.

"Gloria Steinhem would hate you," one of the women yells at soft-touch Olive for sending money to her broke ex-husband. Steinhem might hate this play, too, but I bet it would make her laugh.

It's at the Randall through Feb. 9 (see

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at

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