The program for CAT Theatre’s production of “The Odd Couple (female version)” says the story unfolds in the present. But long before the first joke involving Adlai Stevenson gets cracked, it’s obvious the setting is actually some 30 years ago. This small program blunder doesn’t really tarnish this reworked version of Neil Simon’s classic play, but it does exemplify a production that gets some key details wrong even while generating copious amounts of laughter.
The reworking, done by Simon himself in 1985 some twenty years after the original hit Broadway, involves switching genders on the characters so that frumpy slob Oscar Madison is now Olive (played by Amy Berlin) and fussy neatnik Felix Unger is Florence (Donna Marie Miller). In this version, Olive doesn’t gather her buddies together in a regular game of poker but, in a turn I found a bit sexist, they play Trivial Pursuit instead (chicks can’t play poker?). While the genders have changed, the basic plot remains: big-hearted Olive takes in Florence after she is dumped by her husband and Flo proceeds to drive Olive crazy with her compulsive ways.
When the show focuses on the interaction between Berlin and Miller, it’s an unqualified hoot. Berlin perfectly captures Olive’s untidy charm and blunt humor and Miller winds Flo tight enough to be annoying but not too tight to be a cartoon. The girl-bonding scenes work somewhat less well with the cadences of conversation and comic timing stumbling occasionally, though director Melissa Rayford orchestrates some very funny stapsticky bits of physical humor. Carroll Andrews’s clueless Vera stands out among the buddies (that also include Donna E. Coghill, Crystal Oakley, and Amy George Brown), her one-step-behind observations always prompting a laugh. Costume designer Elizabeth Nguyen enhances Vera’s dimness with a suitably drab wardrobe; what she was going for with Oakley’s glam outfits eluded me.
When Olive and Flo test the dating waters with a couple of dashing Spanish immigrants, Manolo (Alan Gropper) and Jesus (Richard Halenda), the show hits some significant bumps. Halenda’s accent never settles into a recognizable groove and Gropper’s falls apart when his character gets emotional, further hampering a scene Simon filled with relatively feeble miscommunication jokes. Other smaller miscues involved a prop gun that looked too much like a toy, a confusing bit that I think involved air freshener, and a city skyline that could have been made with construction paper (a major problem in an otherwise nicely appointed set by Max Snyder).
These issues insert hiccups into the flow of a comedy that still manages to reach fairly uproarious peaks despite them. Though the execution isn’t flawless, the two stars of this production make the most of their neat/messy clashes and the gender-reversing spin brings new life to a familiar story.
“The Odd Couple (female version)” runs at CAT Theatre, 319 North Wilkinson Road, through November 9th. Go to cattheatre.com or call 262-9760 for tickets and information.