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Having Fun With Familiar ‘Couple’

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Freshening Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” isn’t the easiest thing to do. The comedy, undoubtedly Simon’s most popular, is as familiar and predictable as a gag heard over and over.

First produced in 1965, the play has probably found its way to more theaters (mostly smaller ones; community playhouses can’t get enough of Simon) than any of his other works. And don’t forget the TV show it inspired, which still turns up on cable, featuring the perennially middle-aged Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Director Kevin Cochran, in his Grove Theater Center production for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Theater on the Green series in Fullerton, overcomes the old-hat pitfalls of staging “The Odd Couple” with a simple formula: good acting.

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His sure-handed cast, especially David Allen Jones as the fastidious and wounded Felix, make what could be labored into something lively.

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If you’re going to have punch lines that we’ve heard for three decades, everything had better be punchy. Cochran’s pacing is just that, right from the start when slob-master Oscar (Patrick Lawlor) is first seen with an edgy assortment of pals over for a weekly poker game.

The boys--Speed (Scoot Powell), Roy (Mike Cunningham), Vinnie (Paul Hasenyager) and Murray (Tom Reusing)--get on one another’s nerves but clearly enjoy these get-togethers as they banter and jab.

They don’t even seem to mind, at least not too much, the state of Oscar’s New York apartment. You may never get to see this many pizza boxes outside of a takeout joint; they’re stacked in corners and thrown about here and there, mingling with the old newspapers and cartons of stale cookies and crackers. Cochran, who also did the set and lighting, gets extreme here, but the comic effect tells us something about Oscar’s devotion to all things messy. It’s almost a religion with this guy.

Then Felix shows up, an infidel in the temple of disarray. His wife has kicked him out, and he’s got nowhere to stay. When Oscar takes him in, it’s the impulsive act of a friend helping a friend, but he has no idea the havoc about to fall on his happy, haphazard home.

Of course, we all do, having known the story of Felix and Oscar for so long. The impulse is to think, “Who cares that these men, supposedly adults, are now going to drive each other mad with their habits?” Jones, and Lawlor to a lesser extent, get us involved by not always settling for the obvious.

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This Felix is far removed from Tony Randall’s blithely self-involved pain-in-the-neck. Jones’ Felix may be fixated on himself, but it’s more of a troubled awareness that he annoys everybody, including his wife, and just can’t help himself. When he ambles around during a poker game, sucking up cigar ashes under everybody’s nose with a portable vacuum, it’s a compulsion that gets you laughing. Oscar may have his booze, but Felix has his tidiness.

Felix even goes so far as to disinfect the cards after the game is over. And when he contemplates suicide, does he write a note to his spouse? No, he prefers a suicide telegram.

It all begins to take its toll on Oscar, played with the usual exasperation by Lawlor. Oscar isn’t nearly as much fun or as good a role as Felix, but Lawlor reveals in the second act something of the character’s anger over his own divorce that makes this Oscar a bit more interesting.

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As for the supporting players, they’re also amusing, even with the one-dimensional roles they’ve stuck with. Besides the card-playing buddies, Susan Haynes and Heather Lake as the “coo-coo” Pigeon sisters who live upstairs are also funny with characters that aren’t more than flashy cliches. They appear, dressed in Day-Glo orange and green mini-dresses, giggle crazily while going on about this and that, and leave everything a little screwier.

Something that doesn’t work is Cochran’s try at updating “The Odd Couple.” References to Martha Stewart (Felix walks around clutching a copy of Martha Stewart’s Living magazine) don’t really get in the way but they do come across as contrived and unnecessary.

* “The Odd Couple,” Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Theater on the Green, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. 8:15 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. $20.50 and $24.50 (dinner available for an extra $14 on Fridays and Saturdays). Ends Aug. 28. (714) 741-9555. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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The Odd Couple

Scoot Powell: Speed

Mike Cunningham: Roy

Paul Hasenyager: Vinnie

Tom Reusing: Murray

Patrick Lawlor: Oscar

David Allen Jones: Felix

Susan Haynes: Gwendolyn Pigeon

Heather Lake: Cecily Pigeon

A Grove Theater Center production of Neil Simon’s comedy. Directed by Kevin Cochran, who also did the set and lighting. Costumes: Don Nelson. Stage manager: Gigi Horowitz.

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