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Oscar and Felix: Still ‘Odd’ after 52 years

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“I have to tell you, I used to have a pretty snobby opinion of Neil Simon,” confesses director Jennifer King. She’s just called for a break, roughly halfway through a busy rehearsal day at Cinnabar Theater. The company is readying a new production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and as the play’s two lead actors — Nathan Cummings (playing Oscar Madison) and Aaron Wilton (Felix Unger) — take a seat on the half-built set’s large, slightly-shabby couch, King is answering a question about the unstoppable popularity of “The Odd Couple,” and of Simon’s work in general. King, who has never directed or acted in a Neil Simon show before, admits that certain theater people are suspicious of Simon’s success and his warm writing style, preferring shows that are edgier, and less conspicuously heart-warming.

“I’ve totally changed my mind about that,” King says. “Having spent some time with it now, watching these actors bring this play to life, I have to say that from a director’s point of view, “The Odd Couple” is just amazing. It’s like a great piece of music, a perfect piece of music. It’s a classic work of theatrical comedy that is as funny today as when it first premiered.

“I used to be one of those people who asked, ‘Why do “The Odd Couple” again?” she continues. “But now I’d like to answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, this play has more laughs than anything I’ve ever worked on. Why wouldn’t we want to experience that again?”

And with a smile, she turns the conversation over to her Oscar and Felix, and heads off for lunch.

“What she said,” smiles Cummings, chasing the smile with a laugh. “I agree totally.”

“Me too, one-hundred percent,” adds Wilton. “I love Neil Simon. And I love ‘The Odd Couple.’ ”

“The Odd Couple,” of course, is the story two close friends whose relationship is strained when they become roommates. The 1965 play became a movie in 1968, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and has been made into three different television series, beginning with the popular ’70s sitcom starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, and continuing through the recent version starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon.

“The thing about Neil Simon is, he’s such a clean writer,” says Cummings, who, as Oscar, will ironically be playing the paragon of untidiness. “There isn’t a word out of place. Everything in the play serves a purpose, and there is not one word wasted. And it’s so damn funny.”

This, it so happens, is also Cummings’ first Neil Simon, but it’s Wilton’s second.

“I did ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ once,” he says. “But there’s nothing like ‘The Odd Couple.’ To a certain degree, the iconic nature of these characters — the laidback slob and the high-strung guy obsessed with cleaning — makes them a challenge to play. But as an actor, when you get beyond the cliché, these are amazingly well written characters. And in terms of Felix Unger, as long as I’m angling toward the honesty of this guy, and what he is going through, it will always be unique and engaging.”

“And let me add that people forget it sometimes, but this is not a two person show,” remarks Cummings, glancing across the stage to where the famous “Odd Couple” poker table stands, agreeably covered in ashtrays and playing cards. “The other characters in this play, the poker guys, they are all real people, and they are all hilarious. The comedy comes from that.”

“Rehearsing the poker playing scenes has been crazy,” says Wilton. “We rehearse it so carefully, because there’s a line that goes with the appearance of every card. It has to go a certain way every time.

“We have a poker-call, every night before we rehearse, the same way you’d have a fight call in a Shakespeare play,” he adds. When it’s hummin’ along, it’s really hummin’ along.”

As if on cue, actor Tim Kniffin appears.

A regular performer at Cinnabar, he’s playing one of those poker buddies — Roy, Oscar’s dry-witted accountant. After a bit of banter about which of the cast might be the better poker player in real life, Kniffin — who pitched the idea of doing “The Odd Couple” to Cinnabar in the first place — gives the final word on why the play is still so popular, and so worth staging, even after all these years.

“The main reason people want to see this show over and over,” he points out, “is the reason people come to see Shakespeare’s work over and over. Because they are brilliant works. Neither Shakespeare nor Simon are perfect, but they are absolute masters. And “The Odd Couple” proves Simon’s mastery.”

(E-mail David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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