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Gods of Odd 

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The characters of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison -- the former a fussy neat-freak, the latter a shameless slob — have become so iconic it's easy to forget that, as originally rendered by playwright Neil Simon, these guys were not clichés.

Sure, they were extreme examples of the male condition, but they had depth beyond the punchlines. In the end, they were best friends who were sincerely trying to help each other cope with the pain of divorce, albeit in riotously incompatible ways.

An entertaining reminder of both the humanity and the hilarity of "The Odd Couple" is playing at the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern. Thanks to sensational work by two of Richmond's most accomplished actors — Scott Wichmann as Felix and David Bridgewater as Oscar — this production will make you cheer for these off-balance oddballs even as you're laughing at them.

Wichmann distinguishes himself the moment he hits the stage, arriving at Oscar's weekly poker game on the verge of suicide because of the breakup of his marriage. Wichmann's tightly wound Felix vacillates wildly (and uproariously) between despondency, defensiveness and self-loathing until Oscar invites him to move in almost out of desperation.

Bridgewater's bravura moment comes later in a scene where Oscar has persuaded Felix to invite their randy British neighbors, the Pigeon sisters, over for dinner. Oscar tries valiantly to be charming and chatty with the girls while growing increasingly frustrated by Felix's stony silence. Seeing the hilarious effect of these conflicting emotions play across Bridgewater's face is like watching an acting master class.

These scenes also highlight the strength of the supporting cast. Jennifer Frank and Jen Meharg (as Gwen and Cecily Pigeon) make for hysterical flibbertigibbits with a dose of sly sexuality, but they still manage to be remarkably human when their own past marital woes are revealed. Oscar's poker buddies, led by no-nonsense Speed (Jeff Clevenger) and supremely henpecked Vinnie (Derek Phipps), are like a Greek chorus of male idiosyncrasy.

Director Joe Pabst sets the mood with some swinging Sinatra tunes between scenes and keeps the pace of the action snappy. The nicely appointed set, designed by Terrie and David Powers, includes wonderful details of Oscar's slovenly life (the socks on the bookshelf being my favorite). Heather Hogg's costumes get the period details right, particularly Felix's '60s-era wardrobe.

The inevitable third-act clash between the roommates' conflicting lifestyles shows the two leads at their comic apex. The nearly wordless five-minute scene is a testament to how exceptional performances on stage can transcend what the playwright puts on the page as the pair elicits hoots of laughter with various looks, asides and in-your-face gestures. But only two actors with the depth of Wichmann and Bridgewater could bring the play home with the subsequent estrangement and reconciliation.

I expected many things from this production of "The Odd Couple," but getting choked up at the end was not one of them. S

"The Odd Couple" is at the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern Thursday-Saturday nights through August 12 at 8 p.m., with selected Wednesday and Sunday matinees. Tickets are $34-$38. Call 282-2620 for details.

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