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Theater Review

It's Still Oddly Familiar

Neil Simon brings back "Oscar and Felix" with a few updates and a lot of fussy details, but much remains the same.

June 21, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the cigar smoke wafts over the poker game, and the guys crack wise in Oscar Madison's New York City apartment in Act 1 of "Oscar and Felix, a New Look at the Odd Couple" at the Geffen Playhouse, we wait and wait and wait to hear what is, in fact, new and, therefore, noteworthy, about Neil Simon's latest rewrite of his wonderful 1965 comedy.

The short answer: very little. In this version, Felix's marriage has lasted eight years instead of 12. A sandwich that Felix makes for blue-collar Vinnie has changed from a BLT on pumpernickel to a bacon and Bearnaise. Oscar has a cell phone. There's talk of kids fornicating in libraries. (Those kids today!)

But the chief and unavoidable dramatic question raised by this production is, alas, what's the point? If it sounds ungracious to question the motives of a playwright who has given us more than his fair share of laughter and entertainment in more than 30 plays, it would be misleading to raise the expectation that he has reinvented a past hit such that it shines more brightly than ever, or much at all.

Quite the contrary, he has only made the old "Odd Couple," familiar to audiences from the movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and the television series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, look better by comparison--much as he did when he altered the play's gender in 1985, turning Oscar and Felix into Olive and Florence. Which was an even worse idea.

In "Oscar and Felix," directed by Peter Bonerz, the poker game gags are still here, plus some new ones, and the evening is not without bits of amusement built on his original idea of a slobby sportswriter badly co-habiting with a fastidious male pal. But the effect of updating his original 1960s scenario with references to the Food Network and e-mail, while adding a Freudian explanation for Felix's cleanliness malaise, is forced, labored and unworthy of Simon's talent.

It's too bad, because Simon has shown Los Angeles audiences in the last decade that he is not written out, based on his hilarious homage to the days of writing for live television in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" staged at the Doolittle in 1995 and the poignant "Proposals," staged by Joe Mantello at the Ahmanson in 1997.

The 2002 incarnation of Oscar is John Larroquette, a funny man in other settings who works all too hard to find the gruffness and rancor necessary to give Oscar's acerbic jousts their full thrust. With his Mets cap on backward, his jowls asunder and his long legs splayed as he shuffles around the apartment, Larroquette reminds us of who Oscar used to be without making us believe he is Oscar. He uses a similar slumped-back body language that Matthau made synonymous with the role, but watching him in Act 1 we wonder what is missing until it suddenly occurs that Larroquette is just too nice. There's something warm in his eyes and his smile that take the bite out of Oscar's tooth-baring retorts. Larroquette gets steamed when Joe Regalbuto, as Felix, dashes his desperate desire for a fling with one of the babes upstairs, but you never feel that he he's going to hold a grudge, not to mention maybe have Felix murdered.

Regalbuto, best known for his long-running role as Frank Fontana on "Murphy Brown," has more success with Felix, the head case whose wife has finally had enough and tossed him out, into the odd coupling with his poker buddy Oscar. Maybe it was always hard to figure how Felix ever fit into Oscar's circle of blue-collar poker pals, but Simon has only stretched the credibility, emphasizing Felix's fragile psyche with the revelation that his mother dragged him through the house under her arm while she vacuumed and cut his toenails when he was asleep. This, I think, qualifies as more than we want to know about Felix, who was a perfectly fine comic creation the first time around without the benefit of dramatic psychoanalysis.

Maintaining Felix's tightly drawn sense of decorum, Regalbuto weeps and whines convincingly at the thought of never seeing his kids again, ultimately winning the sympathy of the sisters upstairs (not much has changed about that). Safe to say Felix is an extreme personality, and Regalbuto is up to the task of taking full measure of that extremity without pushing him into caricature.

The only thing that's changed about the sisters upstairs is that they are now Spanish babes, instead of British--Ynes and Julia instead of Gwendolyn and Cecily, and played by Maria Conchita Alonso and Alex Meneses. They work for Iberia Airlines, and their incomplete command of English allows for a number of malapropisms and cheap mispronunciation jokes. That said, it must be added that Larroquette's best and most original moment comes while explaining to Felix how to pronounce the sister's Spanish names, requiring a theatrical demonstration of tongue control that proves a small tour de force.

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