To begin this review, a synopsis feels almost unnecessary because it would be difficult to find people who are not familiar with this timeless piece of comedy by Neil Simon. The Odd Couple had its original debut in 1965 on Broadway, and with its success, spurred a film in 1968, and then a TV series from 1970 – 1975. Since then it’s seen many adaptations and revivals (even a cartoon version in the 70’s!). If you don’t already know what The Odd Couple is about, it can be summed up easily: two polar opposite personalities become roommates – one a carefree slob, one an uptight neurotic – and hilarity ensues. That’s pretty much all you need to know. In 1985, Neil Simon gave his most popular piece a facelift by giving the girls their turn to have some fun. The cast here at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore does just that, and it’s hard to not feel the same way in the audience. The female version is nearly identical to its original male counterpart, with obviously different gender-related jokes and dialogue.
The stage at Artistic Synergy is small, and under the wrong direction and cast, this could be an issue and easily constrict and confine the action. Chip Meister (with Co-Director and wife, Madeline, who is also in the show) does a fantastic job of making sure his cast uses every ounce of the stage, and there is never a moment where someone is upstaged, not visible, or not heard. This show (like many Neil Simon plays) is probably pretty difficult to really mess up, overall – the script is so chock full of one-liners and humor that punches the audience in the face, it’s practically flowing off the pages. With that being said, it makes it even more of a challenge to make it great and not just funny. Meister does a wonderful job of casting the right people in the right roles – especially the two leading ladies – and they are able to bring out not only the overt humor, but also the subtle, underlying humor in the script. He also updates some of the dialogue to keep it current and relevant.
Going back to the set (also designed by Meister), it suits the setting of the show quite well, which is Olive’s messy New York apartment. From the garbage strewn throughout the place in the beginning to the lopsided posters and pictures hanging (and sometimes falling) off the walls, to the bland yellowish paint job, you really feel like you’re on Florence’s side when she feels the need to start cleaning up. The sound effects and designs by William Lloyd-Roberts are generally well timed and appropriate. The use of the single omni-directional mic on stage helps brighten the dialogue from all the actors without the use of body mics.
The show starts off with the gang of four friends playing Trivial Pursuit at the apartment. The four friends, played by Jennifer Otero, Kendra Keiser, Madeline Meister, and Marge Ricci, do a great job of keeping up a funny banter to welcome the audience and begin the laughs, as well as make their individual characters memorable. Their pacing could be tighter, but they make you feel like part of the game nonetheless. This is not necessarily an easy task, because while the four friends show up at various intervals throughout the play as a group to be a bouncing board for one-liners and to help give Florence and Olive (our two leading ladies) a shove forward with their motivations, the script does not do a good job at making them stick out as individuals.
As an audience member, you might be lucky to remember one or two of the names. Marge Ricci plays an adorable, likable yet gruff Mickey the cop and her delivery never fails to generate a laugh. Jennifer Otero plays Sylvie, and brings a nice level of sassy-pants to the stage and delivers some solid, well-timed one-liners. Kendra Keiser gives a lively and funny exasperated performance as Renee. Madeline Meister plays the slow-on-the-uptake Vera, and makes the jabs at her from Sylvie and the rest believable and funny.
In the second act of the show, Florence and Olive have a date night at the apartment with two “exotic” Latino brothers who live upstairs in the apartment complex. Hence we meet Manolo and Cchhheesooos (Jesus) Costazuela. The brothers completely take over the stage and steal the scenes they are in. The comedy from the brothers is mainly rooted in the language barrier misinterpretations and innuendos, and they pull this off with ease. Manolo, played by Sam Ranocchia (this is Ranocchia’s 5th time being in The Odd Couple in both Male and Female versions as various characters) is suave, likable, and flawless in his comic timing. Lou Otero plays Jesus, and takes a totally different, yet hysterical, character interpretation from his brother Manolo. As soon as he enters, he has a poo-eating grin that eats up the stage, and spends most of his time creepily staring at Florence with a child-like wonder. We (and the rest of the audience) could not stop laughing at his antics. He keeps it up through the entire date night and it doesn’t get old. The Spanish accents float in and out a little at times, but their comic timing together with Florence and Olive is priceless. At the end of the show, you even get to see Otero dressed up like Woody from Toy Story, cowboy boots and all!
The Odd Couple (Male or Female) would go nowhere without the two leads. The story revolves around them, and even if you have a perfect supporting cast, the show falls flat if both of these roles are not cast and acted well – not just one, but both. Their chemistry is imperative and irreplaceable. You can’t get away with a solid Florence and a lackluster Olive, or vice-versa. Luckily, the audience is in for a treat with Florence and Olive in this production. Olive Madison is the stereotype of a carefree, irresponsible, outspoken slob, and Melissa Broy Fortson gives us everything one could want out of the role. Her delivery, comic timing, physical comedy, and portrayal are priceless. She not only has the comedy, but the heart as well. She brings a distinct and vulnerable femininity on top of the gruff exterior of Olive that truly helps the audience empathize with her. Her one-liners are delivered with pizazz, and she doesn’t miss any of the punchlines.
Florence Unger, the polar opposite of Olive, is the stereotype of a neurotic, detail-oriented, uptight, impossible, nervous, obsessive-compulsive, June Cleaver-ish housewife who cannot stand the sight of disarray (she even sanitizes the playing cards). The four friends, and Olive, view her as an eccentric yet tolerable addition to the group, until Olive offers her a room in the apartment after her husband splits with her. Samantha Murray plays Florence, and captures every nuance of the role. The timbre of her voice fits the character, her nervous gestures and ticks, animated facial expressions, and constant frantic fits are so well done that you hardly notice that she is younger than one would expect from an actor taking on the role. She brings a heaping level of heart to Florence, and even though the character gets weepy a lot, she deftly makes it funny and sympathetic simultaneously. Her “moose-calls” that abruptly come out of the blue to clear her sinuses leave the audience in stitches. Her constant ailments are always over the top and funny. Murray puts on a little bit of make-up to try and age the character up to fit the role, but we think she could get away without it. She does such a great job at playing the role that you immediately forget that she is a young actor, and the makeup almost becomes a distraction.
The chemistry between Murray and Fortson is palpable, and they play off of each other like kids on a seesaw. They never miss a beat and are well worth the price of admission alone.
The show itself is short – the first act runs about 40 minutes, and the second act runs a little over an hour with a total run time 1 hour and 45 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission. It is a fun, welcome diversion to anyone’s weekend, and these reviewers recommend you spend some time with Artistic Synergy while it lasts!
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
The Odd Couple (Female Version) plays through September 18, 2016 Artistic Synergy in the basement of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church— 8212 Philadelphia Road in Rosedale, MD. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (410) 833-5181 or by purchasing them online.