ST. PETERSBURG — Neil Simon’s classic The Odd Couple is practically the blueprint for mismatched personality comedies. For its first production of the season and return to in-theater performance, American Stage is presenting the classic with a fresh eye.
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the theater’s new producing artistic director and resident playwright, is the first person of color to helm American Stage. So in an effort to acknowledge the movement of diversity in the theater and beyond, he decided to shake things up in his first season at American Stage.
Around the World in Eighty Days was originally slated for the first production of the season. Maharaj, who is Indo-Afro-Caribbean, had the idea to have it adapted by an African American playwright, but wanted to give him enough time.
He zeroed in on The Odd Couple, bringing in people of color to the cast, because of two things that happened during the pandemic: People left their apartments less in New York City, where he lived, and divorce rates increased.
“It just lends itself for an opportunity to look at one of the most beloved American comedies, and to give Neil Simon an opportunity to be put through a lens that embraces diversity and gender equality,” Maharaj said in a phone interview before the show’s opening.
Directed by Adam Mace, the play is set in an apartment on the Upper West Side during the summer of 2021.
Michael Burgess plays Felix Unger, the persnickety neat freak who moves in with his best friend, the sloppy Oscar Madison (Damon Dennin). Both are going through divorce; Oscar’s is finalized, but Felix’s wife has just kicked him out, causing him to threaten suicide.
All of the dialogue from the 1960s script has been kept. There are some real zingers, which at times throw you off, like when 1960s prices for items are mentioned.
At the duo’s regular poker games, the character of Vinnie is now a gay woman, portrayed with zest by Vickie Daignault, who jokes about her wife. Wisecracking Speed (Xavier Harris) throws barbs at New York Police Department cop Murray (Casey Worthington.)
A nod to the pandemic comes with Roy (Nick Hoop), Oscar’s accountant and fellow poker player, whose sensible nature is translated into constant hand washing and mask wearing.
Felix’s and Oscar’s opposite personalities come to a head through a number of comical situations. Felix’s inconsolable meltdowns come more frequently, with Burgess playing them to roaring laughter from the audience. Dennin’s exasperated, raging Oscar is spot on. The actors’ chemistry made for a good pairing.
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In an attempt to cheer up Felix, Oscar invites the Pigeon sisters, their British neighbors, over for dinner. Massiel Evans (as Cecily) and Nicole Masterson (as Gwendolyn) deliver show-stealing performances.
While the original script is intact, the diversity of actors brings the classic comedy into the 21st century, reflective of what friendships in America look like these days.
If you go
The Odd Couple. Runs through Nov. 21. $47 and up. American Stage Theatre Company, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org. Proof of a negative COVID-19 test or a CDC card proving full vaccination must be shown before entering. Masks must be kept on over the nose and mouth at all times during the performance.