The Odd Couple
November 11, 2011
The Rogue in Reviews, Two Muses Theatre

Not long ago, two women mused that if they wanted more and better opportunities for women in theater, they should create some. The newly formed Two Muses Theatre now presents its inaugural production, one of Neil Simon’s best-known comedies. The Odd Couple was adapted by Simon a quarter century ago to envision a pair of women in the mismatched lead roles, here played by the company’s founders. As directed by Diane Hill and Terie Spencer (and staged in a sizable space tucked in a West Bloomfield Township Barnes & Noble bookstore), this production struggles for a foothold in its iconic, traditionally male scenario, but is boosted by comprehensive design that adds confident flair to its first step onto the Southeast Michigan scene.

The setting is the disheveled apartment of Olive Madison (Barbie Amann Weisserman), a divorcee with a high threshold for grime and little patience for anything outside of her most basic needs. When the weekly ladies' Trivial Pursuit game is upended by late-arriving Florence Unger (Hill), freshly devastated by her husband’s sudden decision to divorce her, Olive finds herself saddled with the unlikeliest of mismatched roommates. Because appearances and upkeep become the hotly contested center of the conflict, the entire design team pours meticulous energy into establishing the Olive/Florence dichotomy. Set design by Bill Mandt provides a livable space, with both potential for numerous upgrades and a sense of flow into the unseen rooms; added to this are Weisserman’s properties, whose entirely modest disorder is all the more astonishing in its transition to tasteful elegance. Weisserman is also credited with the pitch-perfect costume design, which is admirably as dedicated to developing secondary characters as it is evident in every stitch of Florence’s pristinely ordered and flawlessly appropriate attire. Lighting by Lucy Meyo features lovely focal points, and themes of friendship, heartbreak, and woman power cycle through the upbeat selections of Hill’s sound design.

As performers, Hill and Weisserman are individually accomplished, but the central relationship here lacks a necessary spark. Hill’s wounded and fastidious Florence is a doormat of a domestic, whereas Weisserman’s character work leans hard on artificial gruffness; each seems so preoccupied with being a foil for the other that neither reacts with the consistently growing resentment that should fuel their conflict. Consequently, the play becomes about merely how different they are, rather than how their differences drive them to distraction. (That is, of course, when the play isn’t about straddling decades’ worth of references and losing its slippery grip on the female-empowerment narrative loosely tacked on to this adaptation — as it turns out, Florence and Olive have an easier time coexisting than do mid-century Trivial Pursuit clues, women’s-lib sentiments that feel dated to the point of staleness, and largely contemporary dress and décor.) The result bears none of Simon’s trademark mundanity elevated to histrionics, nor much affection between the pair; rather than hilarity and heart, the viewer is served begrudging bemusement.

The substantial supporting cast includes a quartet of women who round out the Trivial Pursuit crew (Spencer, Nancy Cooper, Cheryl Glicker, and Julie Yolles); their chatty and expository dialogue is marked by actory politeness that tugs at the pacing. The gracious-to-a-fault Costazuela brothers are last to appear, a pair of bookend roles that Robert Hotchkiss and Alan Madlane tackle with riotous commitment. Their exceptional use of the language barrier and seemingly inseparable teamwork contribute to some of the biggest laughs of the production.

This Odd Couple benefits from obvious forethought and capable design indicative of strong offerings to come; however, its selection as Two Muses’s first-impression piece is ultimately puzzling. To deliberately showcase roles that were written as male and then clumsily re-tinkered as female, in an adaptation that blatantly suffers for the comparison, demands unparalleled excellence in order to succeed; although Hill, Spencer, and company put forth a valiant effort at a comedy, this production can’t quite shake the pesky “female version” qualifier and come entirely into its own.

The Odd Couple is no longer playing.
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