Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple

Neil Simon's latest version of "The Odd Couple" is a new paint job on an old vehicle. The car has lost some of its original charm and the engine shows the heavy wear of its mileage, but it's still a classic.

Neil Simon’s latest version of “The Odd Couple” is a new paint job on an old vehicle. The car has lost some of its original charm and the engine shows the heavy wear of its mileage, but it’s still a classic. In this second revamp — women took over the lead roles in a 1985 version — Simon rewrites, but he doesn’t really reimagine. Joe Regalbuto manages to make the character of Felix his own, more so than John Larroquette does with Oscar, but he doesn’t do anything surprising. Regalbuto just seems comfortable in the role, fussy, needy and always on the verge of tears — and he cleans his sinuses with aplomb.

Larroquette, who really is a terrific actor, seems to be holding back — every time he finds something playful he pulls away, as if he’s trying hard not to do anything the original Oscar, Walter Matthau, would have done. But he thereby ends up doing not much at all. His Oscar ends up being a bit of a bore, not nearly slovenly enough and not possessing the joie de vivre that makes the character so appealing. Costume designer Christina Haatainen Jones hasn’t provided much creativity to help him, sticking him with the cliched sideways baseball cap.

Larroquette and Regalbuto, under the direction of Peter Bonerz, need to let loose and have more fun. Right now, there’s not much chemistry between them: Everything is controlled and careful — amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny.

At this point in the run, Oscar and Felix actually get upstaged by the upstairs neighbors who come to dinner — typically, the menu has changed, but not the structure of the scene. Initially, these neighbors were two British sexpot sisters, then Simon transformed them into Spanish brothers for the female-lead version. Now they’re Spanish sisters, and the third time’s the charm. In two pitch-perfect performances, Maria Conchita Alonso and Alex Meneses make every one of the one-liners funny — no matter how predictable and overdone they are. If Simon and company could find a way to make the Oscar and Felix scenes this refreshingly silly, they would have a livelier piece of theater on their hands.

The other characters, the poker-playing buddies, haven’t really changed at all, even though their persistent one-liners have been totally retooled with contemporary references. The guys are excellent, with Richard Portnow as sympathetic cop Murray; Gregory Jbara as Vinnie, so cheap he vacations in Florida in midsummer; Ryan Cutrona as Speed (who could be speedier); and Samuel Lloyd Jr. as Roy. Each one goes for a delivery drier than the next, which works but isn’t especially spirited.

There are two changes that hinder the show. Simon keeps the same number of scenes but reduces the number of acts from three to two, which means there’s just a brief interlude rather than an intermission for stagehands to transform Roy Christopher’s nicely done West End apartment from filthiness to spotlessness — keeping the set from representing the polar extremes it needs to.

Another step backward is the excision of Felix’s positive influence on Oscar. This whole story is one of two buddies who drive each other nuts but actually get something good out of it — Felix takes the first step toward dealing with his divorce, while Oscar learns how to be more responsible. Simon dumps the latter part, though it’s not clear why, and the ending suffers.

The playwright throws in more psychological material — the way Felix’s mother cleaned with him under her arm, for example, becomes an effective running gag. None of it adds much, and neither does the self-conscious pseudo-analysis of gender roles — “He has no gender, have you noticed?” asks a poker player about Felix — or commentary about the generational changes regarding sex.

The update could use plenty of tinkering. Or perhaps Simon could recognize that he had it best the first time, and that “The Odd Couple,” performed as a period piece with the right cast, doesn’t need a new look to chug along for a few more miles.

Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple

Geffen Playhouse; 499 seats; $46

  • Production: A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a two-act play by Neil Simon. Director, Peter Bonerz.
  • Crew: Set, Roy Christopher; costumes, Christina Haatainen Jones; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; sound, Jon Gottlieb; production stage manager, Elsbeth M. Collins; casting, Lisa Zarowin. Opened, reviewed June 19, 2002; closes July 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: Speed - Ryan Cutrona Roy - Samuel Lloyd Jr. Murray - Richard Portnow Vinnie - Gregory Jbara Oscar - John Larroquette Felix - Joe Regalbuto Ynes - Maria Conchita Alonso Julia - Alex Meneses
  • Music By: