Purple Rose Theatre debuts 'The Odd Couple'

They say that comedy is harder to do than tragedy. Before last Friday night, I didn’t fully believe that, because when I’ve acted, I’ve found tragic or dramatic scenes to be more demanding. But, watching the Purple Rose Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” on opening night, I understood; comedy is harder to do because it’s harder to make it look easy.

This is especially true in the case of this play, because it is truly an ensemble comedy — everyone has many moments of humor and many of the laughs depend on timing. Here, with a cast of eight running around, throwing food, wielding baseball bats and jumping over furniture, it could have been a comedic timing disaster. However, in the sure hands of Director Lauren Mounsey and her stellar cast, it did what fabulous comedy is supposed to do: it looked effortless.

The play is fabulous, witty and hilarious, but with more truth and depth than even some dramas have. Neil Simon’s story is of two mismatched roommates and is perhaps his most widely known play. The 1968 movie based on the play, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and the very successful 70’s TV sitcom starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman brought the story to a much larger audience than plays usually get.

Michelle Mountain, who plays one of the two kooky Pigeon sisters in Purple Rose’s production, spoke about the challenges of doing a play that is also a popular movie.

“We always want to do a story justice; the fun is embracing the play and not worrying about the movie. We try to do every play as if it’s a brand new story,” she said.

And boy, did they get it right. Purple Rose Artistic Director Guy Sanville, who usually directs Purple Rose’s plays, steps under the lights to play Oscar Madison, the brazen slob who just wants to enjoy his solitary, messy life. Sanville and David Montee, who plays neat-freak and hypochondriac Felix Unger, are the perfect opposites and both also have the difficult task of making their characters likeable.

Each of them manages to bring out the best in their characters, so that we stay engaged with them even during the times when we are not rooting for them. Sanville’s Oscar turns out to be sensitive and warm, along with the qualities that drive Felix crazy and Montee’s Felix comes across as kind and caring even during his fits of obsessive cleaning and cooking.

The ditzy Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily, are a prime example of the challenges of playing comedy because they say the silliest, most ignorant things completely in earnest. Michelle Mountain and Rhiannon Ragland completely stole the show, which is no small achievement in this production. Mountain’s giggly Gwendolyn got raucous applause in the middle of a scene because of the way she said one of the funniest and dumbest lines in the show. I won’t spoil it for you.

Ragland’s Cecily is clearly not the brightest tool in the shed either, but she also has a cat-like, flirtatious smolder that she uses to great affect with the very prim and proper Felix.

The cast is rounded out by Felix and Oscar’s poker buddies, each one having their own unique quirks and shining moments. David Bendena, Jim Porterfield, Chris Lutkin and Tom Whalen are all brilliant, particularly Whalen as Vinnie, whose running bit about having to go home to his wife is one of the funniest parts of the show.

“The Odd Couple” marks the directorial debut of regular Purple Rose actress Lauren Mounsey, and she navigates the show’s challenges with ease. The wonderful set by Bartley H. Bauer depicts Oscar’s apartment with the authentic trappings of the 60’s, and special mention should be made of terrific fight choreographer Robert Najarian. At the outset, this show doesn’t seem like it would need a fight choreographer, but the description can be deceiving.

This is one of those rare shows that is good no matter who’s putting it on, but at the Purple Rose, “The Odd Couple” is a masterpiece all around. The show runs through March 26 at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich.

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