Pair Up

A crosstown Neil Simon double bill

The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple-By Neil Simon. Performed by the Kirkwood Theatre Guild through November 13 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 S. Geyer Road, Kirkwood. Call 314-821-9956.

Rumors-By Neil Simon. Performed by Saint Louis University Theatre through November 20 in Xavier Hall, 3733 West Pine Mall (on the Saint Louis University campus). Call 314-977-3327.

When's the last time you saw The Odd Couple? Not the movie version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Not an episode of the classic TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Not even the repotted stage adaptation that transformed Oscar and Felix into Olive and Florence.

No, we're talking here about the fountainhead, the mother lode, the original, bona fide 1965 Broadway comedy from which a veritable cottage industry has sprung. We're talking about early Neil Simon before he knew he would emerge as the most popular playwright in history, Simon before he became the patron saint of community theaters. If you've not seen The Odd Couple in a while, you might consider visiting the Kirkwood Theatre Guild this weekend. Because to view this play in its original form is to be beguiled by one of the funniest comedies in American theater.

It's true that comedy is in the ear of the beholder. What amuses one person might fail to entertain another. But so much laughter emanates from these three acts (and yes, the KTG has the good sense to stage the play as originally written, complete with two intermissions), surely there's something to amuse everyone in this tale about Oscar Madison, the well-intentioned slob who takes in best friend Felix Ungar after Felix's wife has announced she wants a divorce. Even before Felix's tidy neurotic tics transform the good-natured Oscar into a crazed thug, the laugh lines begin to cascade like beer exploding from a warm, shaken can.

Although it's reassuring to think that a playwright grows with experience, that's not always the case. Many critics think The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' first significant play, was his best; it also may be that Edward Albee has never surpassed the sheer theatricality of his first full-length drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In that same vein, The Odd Couple (which was only the third of Simon's 40-plus plays, following Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park) is perhaps his defining achievement. It accentuates his strengths and disguises his limitations. Limitations? Indeed. For despite incredible commercial success, Simon has rarely been comfortable constructing scenes with more than three or four characters onstage at the same time. But The Odd Couple (and the same can be said of The Sunshine Boys) is at its richest when it puts two grown men alone onstage and allows them to indulge in childish antics.

The humor here also legitimately evolves from character. Over the decades Simon has taken a lot of lumps, usually in direct proportion to his ever-escalating renown, from critics who have accused him of being a rat-a-tat jokemeister. Not so. In Act One, especially, there's hardly a line that would elicit a laugh if it were to be uttered by a different character.

In the central role of Oscar, Ray Shea delivers a performance of remarkable ease. His delivery is downright breezy; he's as comfortable in the role as Oscar (at the outset, anyway) is comfortable in his own skin. Tom Bell's Felix is fine enough, and he provides the necessary foil. But just because Oscar describes Felix as "the Tin Man" doesn't mean he should be portrayed that way. Bell might have a better time of it -- and more fun, to boot -- if he were a little less concerned with playing an attitude and more concerned with playing the moments.

But so what? This script is so droll, once its momentum gets rolling, nothing can stop the audience from having a hilarious time.

If you want an extra dose of belly laughs this weekend, schedule a Simon double bill. In addition to The Odd Couple at the KTG, Rumors -- Simon's only farce, and his most underrated play -- opens a two-week run at Saint Louis University. From the entire Simon catalog, these are two of his very best. To see them back-to-back is a deliciously indulgent opportunity.

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