“An ‘Odd’ play for Theater J” – Washington Post Feature Gets It Right

In today’s Weekend section of The Washington Post
An ‘Odd’ play for Theater J
By Jonathan Padget

Friday, October 22, 2010

Theater J is known for tackling some of the toughest issues in town. It’s the go-to company for hard-hitting, often brand-new fare, from “Honey Brown Eyes” (Bosnian war savagery) to “Benedictus” (Jewish-Muslim relations against the backdrop of the Iranian nuclear threat) to “Something You Did” (’60s radicals grappling with a murderous legacy).

So it may seem a little, well, odd that Theater J is tackling “The Odd Couple.”

The Tony-winning 1965 comedy – about mismatched roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, a neat freak and super-slob thrown together in the wake of marital discord – was an early smash for one of Broadway’s most prolific hitmakers, Neil Simon. And it spawned a successful film, long-running sitcom and countless productions across the country, including Broadway revivals in 1985 with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno (as “Florence” and “Olive”), and in 2005 with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

Yet despite the show’s pop-cultural ubiquity and commercial patina, Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth has no qualms about championing Simon alongside Arthur Miller as “twin pillars of the American Jewish canon and American theater in general.”

Really? Arthur “Death of a Salesman” Miller and Neil “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” Simon?

“Nobody is more produced and ubiquitous as a serious playwright or as a comic playwright than Miller or Simon,” Roth says. “For a Jewish theater like ours, you sort of look at these guys as Mount Rushmore. But Neil Simon has always had this identity or reputation that’s been obscured by his commercial success.”

Still, it wasn’t until last year that the nearly 20-year-old Theater J touched Simon, and even then it was a work with a decidedly bittersweet bent, the 1991 Pulitzer-winning “Lost in Yonkers.”

What was the tipping point for the company to get “Lost” and embrace “Odd”-ness?

With bleak prospects of recession and unending war, Roth says, “audiences who were being tortured by their own diminishing accounts, and being assaulted by the news, didn’t want to be assaulted by the onstage depictions of war and its ravages. We kept hearing everywhere, this is not what we want to be seeing right now. You don’t only want to be prescriptive. You don’t only want to tell people what to look at. You sometimes want to listen to what they’re saying.

“We just had a very searing, tough play that we’re very proud of, ‘Something You Did.’ It’s a relief to know that ‘The Odd Couple’ is coming around. And that’s how our audience feels. It’s a relief to know that we’re going to be able to look at human dysfunction and laugh at it all, and not get unduly beaten up.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Theater J is taking “The Odd Couple” lightly.

“We’ve decided that if we’re going to do Neil Simon at this theater, it’s going to be done par excellence,” Roth says. “We’re going to do it to showcase what’s genius about his work.”

Roth praises the approach of Jerry Whiddon, who directed “Lost in Yonkers” and is helming “The Odd Couple.” Whiddon, says Roth, is striving “to make it real before you make it funny, to exhume all the truth in the play. Men of divorce, men being kicked out of their homes, men not knowing what the hell to do in this new chapter of their lives, and to press from there. It is very, very funny. But it wouldn’t have held up all this time if it didn’t have a real foundation to it.”

Before starting a rehearsal with J. Fred Shiffman as Felix and Rick Foucheux as Oscar, Whiddon says: “I haven’t gone in with any pressure to make [the audience] laugh more to balance out that they’re not going to laugh at the next show. I’m just hoping that the humor that does come out of it comes out of this piece honestly.”
Whiddon hopes, too, that the audience will take as fresh a look at “The Odd Couple” as Theater J is.

“I want them to come open and to be moved by what they’re seeing there, rather than by what they remember it being.”