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Half of "Odd Couple' too odd for play to work

A Neil Simon comedy works best when the audience can like at least something about each character in the play. Even with the most irascible character (and Simon has created a whole raft of them over the years), the audience must be able at some point to say, "Yeah, I've felt like that" or even "Yeah, my Uncle Mickey used to act just like that, but, man, I still loved him."

Pulling this off can be tricky, especially in The Odd Couple, where the slobby Oscar Madison lets his longtime friend, the neatnik Felix Unger, move in to his eight-room Upper Manhattan apartment after they both split with their wives.

Oscar's messy apartment drives Felix to tidy up.

Felix's obsessive cleaning drives Oscar to distraction.

This is a familiar situation for anyone who has ever shared living space, whether it's in a marriage, a college dorm or a retirement village. In The Odd Couple, what starts out as an annoying disagreement over style escalates into a full-scale war, laced with those incomparable Simon one-liners.

This works beautifully when the pacing is right and the roommates are on equal footing. As the plot unfolds, each one seems as reasonable and/or as unreasonable as the other. The audience is on first one side and then the other.

The situation gets dicey, though, when the actor playing Oscar is a young bull of a fellow and the one doing Felix is a soft-spoken, mature gentleman, which is the case in the Richey Suncoast Theatre production playing weekends through March 12.

Oscar is played (arguably, over-played) by an energetic young Marc S. Sanders. But, because the original actor playing Felix was suddenly hospitalized, play director Bob Reece - the gentlest of gentlemen and a few decades Sanders' senior - stepped in at the last moment to take over the role. Reece does a commendable job, creating a believeable and sympathetic Felix.

But the cast change demanded that Sanders make a huge shift in his interpretation of the Oscar role, lest he come off as a cruel bully. Unfortunately, Sanders didn't do so. He starts out loud and physical and gets louder and more animated as the play progresses.

When Felix finally does stand his ground, Oscar so overwhelms his words that it's like watching the ruffian football captain stuff the amiable chess club captain into his school locker.

An Oscar playing opposite such a mild-mannered Felix can only show exasperation, not anger or fury. Only a few times does Sanders' Oscar settle down enough to be lovable, and those scenes are treasures, proving that he can do it. But the balance isn't there. This Felix comes off as the voice of reason to this Oscar's irrational browbeater. The audience isn't torn; it's torn asunder.

The situation is tempered somewhat by the duo's delightful poker pals, who seem split down the middle between Oscar and Felix. The alarmist Murray the cop (Bill Schommer) and the accommodating Vinnie (Mike Jones) appreciate Felix's efforts in the kitchen and with the vacuum cleaner; the impatient Speed (Rich Aront) and go-along Roy (Bob Marcela) like Oscar's unkempt ways and view their weekly visits to his messy, manly digs as sweet relief from their wives' orderly households.

The giggly Pigeon sisters from upstairs, Gwendolyn (Susan Nichols) and Cecily (Joann McMahon), bring softness to their scenes, though they, too, seemed intimidated by the hyper Oscar.

"The Odd Couple,' weekends through March 12 at Richey Suncoast Theatre, 6237 Grand Blvd., New Port Richey. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15, reserved seating. Box office is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and an hour before each show. Call (727) 842-6777.