To steal a line from "Plaza Suite": Some ideas look better in the window than they do when you get them home. Take Neil Simon's notion of reworking "The Odd Couple" into a vehicle for two actresses--Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, at the Ahmanson.
It sounds like a cute idea, and not that implausible. Two divorced friends try to share an apartment and find that they drive each other up the wall. These days this could happen as easily to two women as to two men. All we have to do is make Oscar the slob into Olive (Moreno) and Felix the neatnik into Florence (Struthers).
Yet, at the Ahmanson, the idea, and consequently the evening, never quite hangs right.
True, the new "Odd Couple" fetches plenty of laughs. But they tend to be second-class laughs, generated by the kind of gags well within the reach of a fluent sitcom writer, and sight gags well within the range of the average sitcom cast. Simon believed in Felix and Oscar. He's not sure about Florence and Olive. So, he sets them to doing bits.
The funniest is when they entertain the handsome Costazuela brothers from upstairs (Lewis J. Stadlen and Tony Shalhoub).
The Costazuela brothers work for Iberia, the Spanish airline--which Florence characteristically mishears as Siberia. The Costazuelas misspeak themselves quite regularly, in the most courtly way possible, and it's impossible not to grin.
At the same time, the cross talk is on the vaudeville level, not too far from the insets in Simon's "Sunshine Boys." Compare the far subtler comedy when the Pigeon Sisters come to call on Felix and Oscar, culminating in the wonderful moment when Felix tragically displays the snapshots of his wife's living-room lamps: the symbols of all he has lost.
When Struthers as Florence shows her prints, she somehow looks like a dodo, and Simon has to turn to one of the Costazuela brothers for the punch line. Time and again, the show reminds us that humor has more of a gender base than we may realize. Felix as a fussbudget threatens the macho mystique of Oscar and his poker-playing buddies. But Florence as a fussbudget is no more than an annoyance to Olive's all-female Trivial Pursuit bunch (Marilyn Cooper, Kathleen Doyle, Jenny O'Hara, Mary Louise Wilson). For them, she's no worse than a solicitous mother. The two scenes don't have an equal comic value. One sees why Simon has got to pour on the wisecracks.
Another problem: We knew what to make of Oscar and Felix. Oscar was the slob; Felix was the priss. Olive and Florence are much less well-defined, especially as they are cast here. Olive is supposed to be the slob, yet she looks as slim, poised and well-groomed as, well, Rita Moreno. Even when we see her doing it, we know that this is not a woman who throws her clothes on the floor.
Meanwhile, Struthers flounces around under a mane of frazzled blond hair, dressed in a series of outlandish outfits that might have been designed by Ginger Rogers' mother, including the Minnie Mouse shoes and the hair ribbons. The actress looks bulky and squeaks a lot, and again you laugh. But whom is she playing? Certainly not a detail person.
Presumably costumer Ann Roth was under orders here from director Gene Saks, but the clothes don't go with the lines. One or the other needs revision. And Moreno should junk the Walter Matthau inflections when Olive gets exasperated. If Olive can't exist without reference to Oscar, then this is just a stunt.
At the moment, that's the impression. The play seems an archeological composite, neither the "Odd Couple" of 1965 nor a 1985 comedy with its own point of view. Simon might have done better to forget the original play entirely and start out afresh, with perhaps some technical advice on how two female housemates set up the rules these days and how they might bug each other. His knowledge of human nature would have done the rest.
Instead, he has patched and padded, added new wrinkles, found the occasional line that gets under the surface--and yet been unable to turn this "Odd Couple" into a living experience. Felix and Oscar threw around a lot of gags, too, but they came from the strain they were under. Florence and Olive are asking for laughs, and more often than not they're getting them. But from Neil Simon--to quote "Plaza Suite" again--we expect more.
'THE ODD COUPLE' Neil Simon's new version of his comedy, presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre. Producers Emanuel Azenberg, Wayne M. Rogers and the Shubert Organization. Director Gene Saks. Scenery David Mitchell. Costumes Ann Roth. Lighting Tharon Musser. With Rita Moreno, Sally Struthers, Marilyn Cooper, Kathleen Doyle, Jenny O'Hara, Tony Shalhoub, Lewis J. Stadlen and Mary Louise Wilson. Plays Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m., with matinees Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets $8-29.50. Closes May 26. 972-7654.