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Opposites attract … or do they? - ‘The Odd Couple’

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Tyler Costigan (left) and Tellis Coolong star as Felix and Oscar, the titular pairing in Truen North Theatre's production of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Tyler Costigan (left) and Tellis Coolong star as Felix and Oscar, the titular pairing in Truen North Theatre's production of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." (photo courtesy True North Theatre/Christopher Brian Photography)

ORONO – They say opposites attract … but do they really? And for how long?

True North Theatre is bringing a Neil Simon classic to the stage with their production of “The Odd Couple.” Directed by Angela Bonacasa and starring TNT regulars Tellis Coolong and Tyler Costigan, the show runs through Jan. 19 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the campus of the University of Maine at Orono.

It’s the best-known of Simon’s many theatrical classics, a story about the difficulties inherent to starting over and the importance of friends who will support you even as you drive them crazy. It’s also arguably his funniest, with the mismatched pair at the show’s center an iconic stage dynamic; their relationship laid the foundation for a hundred comedies – some brilliant, others derivative, but all undeniably inspired by Oscar and Felix.

True North gets it, featuring fine performances from that central duo and a general understanding of just how hilarious this script is - an understanding that is ulitmately executed wonderfully.

Oscar Madison (Coolong) is a slovenly reporter, a recent divorcee who lives alone in the midst of his messy apartment. He’s got a close group of friends who come over for weekly poker games and general dudeness; just a bunch of guys – Murray (Mark Bilyk), Speed (Neil A. Graham), Vinnie (Joe Fisher) and Roy (Garrett Moyer) – playing cards (or trying anyway). They're a fun-loving crew with no problems airing their grievances or busting each other’s chops.

Things change when the sixth member of their group, Felix Ungar (Costigan), shows up late with terrible news – he and his wife of 14 years are getting divorced. The rest of the guys worry for Felix’s well-being; he’s clearly shattered by the news to the point where he might do something drastic. In an admittedly poorly-considered effort to help his friend, Oscar offers a solution – Felix should move in with him.

It’s clear from the start that these two are simply incompatible. The slovenly, slouching Oscar doesn’t take well to the changes implemented by the uptight and fastidious Felix. The atmosphere of the apartment shifts drastically in ways with which not everyone is completely comfortable.

The tenuous situation finally boils over when Oscar, in an effort to help Felix get his mind off the end of his marriage, sets them up on a double date. The Pigeon sisters – Gwendolyn (Holly Schreiber) and Cecily (Jenny Hancock) – live in Oscar’s building; they’re secretaries, they’re Brits and they’re definitely up for some fun. But when Oscar’s lack of consideration and Felix’s self-pitying frustration come together, the end result is … let’s just say far from ideal. It becomes too much for the erstwhile roommates and results in raised voices saying things that can't be unsaid.

“The Odd Couple” is a classic, obviously, serving as a template for the now-ubiquitous nothing-in-common buddy comedy. As a classic, it is very much of its era, a time now half-a-century in the rearview. So yes, some of the references and a few of the attitudes are a bit dated. But viewed as a period piece, a product of that mid-1960s turmoil, it’s quite interesting. There’s some prescience there; as an artist, Simon probably couldn’t help but feel what was coming.

And situationally? Timeless and still hilarious. If Simon’s whip-crack dialogue doesn’t elicit a chuckle, I don’t know what to tell you.

Obviously, the key to this show’s success is the dynamic between Oscar and Felix. Displaying and examining that relationship is the underpinning of the entire thing. Coolong and Costigan make an admirable pairing, each finding ways to capture their character’s nature in such a way as to illustrate their fundamental differences. Coolong’s Oscar growls and grunts, wallowing unapologetically in his bachelorhood. He finds ways to mute his potentially imposing physicality with a slouching grace, allowing for real impact when he lets loose. Costigan’s Felix is a portrait of rigidity, tight-lipped and ramrod straight. His clipped clarity of speech serves as a nice oppositional force as well. Together, they’re wonderful – one never loses sight of their foundational friendship even as tempers rise. That friendship never feels less than 100% genuine; it’s all very sincere in the best way.

The poker crew is a strong group, forming a sort of nesting-doll ensemble-within-the-ensemble. Bilyk is good as always as the amiable cop Murray. Graham brings a big and welcome energy to his portrayal of Speed. Fisher’s Vinnie comes off as delightfully dim, while Moyer hits the right notes of exasperation. As the Pigeon sisters, Schreiber and Hancock are clearly having a lot of fun. And they’re a real force to be reckoned with – the whole show cranks up when they giggle and flounce their way in.

Director Bonacasa has really run the gamut with the shows she’s helmed for True North over the years, and one thing you can always count on from her is a wonderful sense of the physical; her direction of movement never fails to engage. That’s the case here. And that movement goes hand in hand with perhaps the most important element of a Neil Simon comedy – pacing. That’s well-handled here too. Directorially, the right notes are hit.

Production-wise, it’s always lovely to see what True North does with the Cyrus Pavilion. They’ve got a great design team, with local legends Tricia A. Hobbs (set) and Scout Hough (lighting) leading the way. Hobbs has a great feel for functionality in the relatively small confines, while Hough does great work with the deceptively difficult job of lighting a three-quarters space like this one. Claire Bolduc’s costumes, Belinda Hobbs’s props and Graham’s sound design are all solid contributors as well. It’s a limited space, but this group has gotten so used to dealing with those limits that they’re practically strengths.

So go – check out “The Odd Couple.” They might be a bad match, but you’ll have a great time.

(For tickets or more information about “The Odd Couple,” you can visit the True North Theatre website at www.truenorththeatre.org.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 09:03

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