Michael Burgess (right) and Damon Dennin (left) bring Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’ to life with a contemporary flair at the American Stage.
BY DEBBIE YATI GARRETT, Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG – The American Stage was buzzing for the opening night of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” and the first production under the helm of new producing artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj.
Directed by Adam Mace, this production brings the play — which premiered on Broadway in 1965, went onto become a film in 1968, and was a popular television in the 1970s — smack into contemporary times, COVID and all.
Directorial choices in casting provide the most obvious indications of a modern-day take on the play. While the earlier versions used white actors in all the roles, this version casts a Black man, Michael Burgess, in the role of Felix Unger, while Damon Dennin, who plays Oscar Madison, is Caucasian.
Burgess is pitch-perfect as the uptight but caring Felix Unger, while Damon Dennin’s Oscar Madison is a gregarious, sometimes wildly buffoonish alpha male.
Black or Latinx actors also play other roles. Massiel Evans as Cecily Pigeon is the Black sister to Nicole Masterson’s Gwendolyn Pigeon; olive-skinned and dark-haired, Masterson’s lighter but not white-skinned sister alongside Evans is an intriguing choice. As Speed, Xavier Harris is also Black, while Casey Worthington, as Murray, is the only other straight white male character.
The production also updates the formerly all straight-appearing roles to add LGBTQ+ characters, as in the portrayal of Vinnie, played by Vickie Daignault, who is married to her wife, and Nicholas Perez-Hoop, who plays Roy with possibly/probably gay overtones.
Mace’s direction deftly handles the humor, and belly laughs can be found from beginning to end. While much of the credit can be given to Simon’s profoundly inciteful ability to squeeze a chuckle from the most poignant situation, Mace also mines the currency of his diverse casting, which turns some of Simon’s punch lines into double entendres with racial overtones.
“Neil Simon was very direct that this should be presented in present-day New York,” Maharaj shared in a recent interview. “In present-day New York, you see Black and white folks coming together, different diversities, folks from the Latinx community.”
While he believes the opportunity didn’t exist when the play was originally produced on Broadway to cast a Black man, the new artistic director added, “Now we have a chance to meet the opportunity of the moment in the present day, New York.”
Mace also takes advantage of the current moment by adding the now all-too-familiar (some might even say horridly-ubiquitous) accessory of our time – the mask – to every character’s entrance and exit as a sad reminder of our shared pandemic experience.
Maharaj said Felix and Oscar’s marital woes — the cause of them becoming reluctant roommates — mirrored the experience of many couples during the last two years.
He pointed to recent articles reporting that divorce rates have skyrocketed because “many people have been literally in their apartment buildings in New York and have not left for over a year and a half.” The same could be said, he noted, of St. Pete or any other city where “pod” living has led couples to reexamine their relationships.
At the end of the night, the audience had the comedic experience they were hoping for; the production cements Simon’s reputation as a comedic genius, taking the audience on a non-stop journey of laughter (along with a few moments of drama).
Thanks to excellent performances, the contemporary casting only added to Simon’s depiction of the complexity of relationships. And directorial choices and casting signal a courageous new direction for American Stage, as it moves boldly into the country’s richly multicultural and ever-more-diverse future.
“The Odd Couple” is in performance through Nov. 21 at American Stage, 163 3rd St. N, St. Petersburg.
For information, visit americanstage.org.
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