Santa Claus used to come to Broadway almost every year in the '60s and '70s when Neil Simon was at the top of his form with enormously funny plays like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys.
Now there's new reason for plenty of joy and laughter Off-Off Broadway with Latour de Force Productions' revival of the female version of Simon's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple at the Pantheon Theatre, running through this Sunday, April 15. Simon actually rewrote his original play for a 1985 all-female Broadway production co-starring Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno.
I must preface my remarks by saying that I have a special fondness for most things Simon, believing the sometimes belittled, yet brilliant American playwright to be a cross between the French farce king Moliere and Kaufman and Hart, with more heart and soul.
At the same time, I can't imagine two better actresses than Kristina Latour and Jodie Bentley playing Simon's quintessential neat freak, Florence Unger, and her splendidly slovenly roommate, Olive Madison, respectively, at the Pantheon's second floor theater. In the play, Madison naively invites Unger to stay with her after Unger's 12-year marriage ends up on the rocks.
Latour is especially funny as the psychotically earnest Mrs. Clean who sends the more career-minded Madison into fits of uncontrollable rage. It's even enough to make one forget about channel surfing through some pretty awful reruns of the TV series in which only the name remains the same as the original Simon masterwork.
Aiding Latour and Bentley is the rest of the cast and the direction, both of which could hardly be better. Jason O'Connell as one of the two Spanish neighbors who visit this odd couple is funnier with the slightest twitch of his expressive eyebrows than most actors are with their entire physiognomy. But the entire eight-member cast, which also includes Deborah Sachs, Mary Anne Paquin, Anne Fizzard, Licia James McLoughlin, Jason O'Connell, and Edward Kassar, are excellent.
Director David M. Pincus must be applauded for the pace and tremendous energy of this production, but it's also Neil Simon himself, arguably the most successful playwright in the history of Broadway--at least financially, and also in terms of the sheer number of productions--who deserves the most praise.
Often attacked unfairly for being a kind of "laugh machine," it's often taken for granted that one of the main reasons Simon's dialogue and situations are so funny is because they're rooted in intensely human and touching characters. Haven't we all known people like Florence Unger (or Felix Unger in the original Broadway The Odd Couple) who continually mess up their own and others' lives by being too obsessive?
"I was born at the right time," Simon told me in an interview in his New York apartment last year. "You could have a play that was just so-so. But if audiences liked it they came and you had a season and the producers got their money back."
"I don't have the mentality of Broadway or bust anymore," he continued. "It's kind of crazy to say you're writing for one place. I don't want to do that anymore. Touring for a year with a play is not a bad idea. But these days to do a tour with a straight play and not a musical you'd better have a big name in the cast. Also, there are very few places that have tours anymore for plays. Musicals, they'll take. But for plays, the people that book them have one or two slots for plays to tour around the country."
Simon also lamented that Broadway, once the world's hub of new dramas and comedies, has largely become the home of long-running mega-musicals and revivals of old musicals.
"Today, some musicals run 10-12 years and comedies are a thing of the past on Broadway," he says. "All the good writers are in California and write for television or movies where they can make a living. You can spend three years on a play and make nothing. So writers aren't writing for the theater the way they used to. They're scared to!"