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Looking Up Old Friends

Neil Simon has another go at his perennial favorite, 'The Odd Couple,' for Geffen Playhouse

June 16, 2002|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to Calendar. Her latest book is "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work."

Oscar climbs all over the couch, then wipes his feet on it. He points an aerosol can at Felix's pasta and gives it a good spray before flinging pasta and plate against the wall. And in case prissy, neatnik Felix still doesn't get the message, Oscar reminds his roommate that every single thing Felix does is irritating.

There are plenty of people laughing, but this rehearsal is a little different from the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other rehearsals each year of Neil Simon's classic comedy, "The Odd Couple." At this rehearsal, the playwright is in the room and he's not just listening. He's rewriting.

The Tony-winning "Odd Couple" has been a hit play, movie and TV series. But Simon, who rewrote his 1965 play in 1985 for women roommates, is tinkering with it again. "I didn't want to just bring 'The Odd Couple' back on stage, because enough people have seen the play or film that they could probably say the words along with the actors," says the nation's most-produced playwright of his most-produced play. "I had to change it."

"Oscar and Felix, a New Look at the Odd Couple" opens at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood on Wednesday. John Larroquette (TV's "Night Court") plays Oscar, Joe Regalbuto ("Murphy Brown") plays Felix. " 'The Odd Couple's' been playing around the world for 36 years and people seem to love it," says Simon, 74, during a lunch break from rehearsals. "But I wanted to give it a new look. I placed it in 2002, and there's a slightly different relationship between Felix and Oscar, much more revealing of who they really are."

Simon, who spent eight months rewriting even before he walked into rehearsals, has also compressed the play's three acts into two. Although he hasn't tampered much with the story or characters, Simon says, "I rewrote about 70%."

Make that number a little higher, suggests Peter Bonerz, who is directing the Geffen production. He guesses that the script has changed another 5% to 10% since rehearsals started in mid-May. Bonerz adds, "He's warned us that once preview audiences come in, it will change again, depending on their response."

A lot of playwrights come to rehearsals to protect their material, observes Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates. "They don't want a line changed. Neil comes to rehearsals to work."

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Simon looks like a university professor as he sits just offstage in the rehearsal room. His arms are crossed on his chest, and he's smiling more than laughing as the actors play out his lines. (Bonerz says Simon "laughs silently.")

"It's going well," Simon says later. "I like the way it's going."

So do the actors. "I was having difficulty with the first scene, understanding exactly what Felix was doing there, and he gave me insight into who Felix is and what makes him tick," Regalbuto says. "This is a part that's been done by icons in film and theater, and to be able to get that kind of clarity as to what he wants is terrific. The playwright's alive. And he's here."

"Oscar and Felix" is Simon's 33rd play, including both earlier versions of "The Odd Couple," and he's nearly done with his 34th, an all-new play due at the Geffen next season. There have also been 25 screenplays, about half of them adaptations of his plays, three Tony Awards ("The Odd Couple" in 1965, "Biloxi Blues" in 1985 and "Lost in Yonkers" in 1991), a Pulitzer Prize ("Lost in Yonkers"), and assorted Oscar and Emmy nominations. He once had four shows simultaneously on Broadway in the '60s, and in 1983, a Broadway theater was named after him.

Although no contemporary American playwright has fared better at the box office, he can hardly be called a favorite of critics. Despite their accolades for his "Brighton Beach" trilogy and "Lost in Yonkers," New York Times critics have called 2000's "The Dinner Party" "a French farce with a Brooklyn accent," and last year's "45 Seconds Over Broadway" "a sincere but paper-thin valentine to New York." Writing of "Rumors" in 1988, then-critic Frank Rich commented that Simon "casually empties out a file cabinet's worth of often tangentially relevant jokes."

At theatrical licensing company Samuel French, President Charles van Nostrand says he thinks Simon "is treated unfairly by the critical press." The playwright is too often dismissed because he writes comedy, adds Manny Azenberg, who has produced 22 of Simon's plays. "There was 'Barefoot in the Park' in 1963 and 'Lost in Yonkers' in 1991. Can you name another American playwright who has remained current for 40 years?"

Simon sighs audibly when it comes to critics. "They think that if you write that many plays, they come easily for you, and they never do. Never. Some are more enjoyable to write than others, but none of them are easy."

"The Odd Couple" was among the easier ones. With most of his plays, Simon says, "I have a general idea and the play comes to me as I write it. With 'The Odd Couple,' I had an idea of the beginning, middle and end."

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