In his heyday, Neil Simon would write a new play each season. In 1985, however, when he didn’t have a good idea for a play, he rewrote one of his finest, funniest comedies, The Odd Couple, changing the gender of the characters and tinkering with many of his previously well-crafted laugh lines.
While he never asked me for my opinion, I would have advised him with that all-purpose cliché: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Oscar Madison. a/k/a the messy one, and Felix Ungar, a/k/a the fussbudget neatnik, became Olive and Florence. Their weekly poker game became Trivial Pursuit, and the upstairs neighbors, Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, became a couple of Spanish airline lotharios, Manolo (Juan Gamero) and Jesus (Rio Chavarro) Costazuela.
Some, but not many, of the changes work well enough. English is a challenge for the Costazuelas and Simon has some fun with language-mangling and misunderstandings. And at Boca Stage — the previously edgy company that made the mistake of selecting the play — the second act scene between the Costazuelas and Florence is the high point of a deeply flawed production.
The gender switch might work, though there is something inherently funnier about two men trying to live together and getting on each other’s nerves than two women. And the line changes that are not gender-related — all less funny than the original lines — just seem to come from a bored Simon making changes for change’s sake.
Still, there are so many sure-fire laugh lines in The Odd Couple, or at least I used to think so until I watched them fall flat at Boca Stage. There is a definite delivery rhythm to Simon’s writing, a fact that seems to have eluded Amy London (Olive), who misses much of the role’s comic potential. Patti Gardner (Florence) is more attuned to earning the laughs, but with so much of her material dependent on playing off of London, it is a losing effort.
Although they are no longer included in his program bio, director Keith Garsson staged a few Simon plays early in his career. Selecting The Odd Couple would appear to be an effort to widen his Boca Stage audience, but he approaches the work now as if he feels guilty about tackling such an overtly commercial comedy.
THE ODD COUPLE (FEMALE VERSION), Boca Stage, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, April 2. $45, 561-300-0156.