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The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple
Peoria Players Theatre
October 3-5 and 9-12

By Douglas Okey

It’s October at Peoria Players Theatre. Must be time for Neil Simon! To be fair, I only looked back one year, but sure enough, in October of 2013 was “Barefoot in the Park.” I don’t know whether including a Simon show is part of the Players charter or bylaws, but there is an element of playing to the crowd here. The opening night audience for Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” directed by Lana Warner, certainly appreciated the gesture.

Let’s talk first about that audience. This reviewer is well into his own middle age, yet he felt truly young again among the patrons at Players. Before anyone has a chance to smack me with a walker, let me clarify: there is nothing wrong with satisfying a mature audience. But what happens, eventually, when a company fails to attract a younger generation of patrons?

In any case, as noted, the bulk of the greying heads in the house laughed heartily at the creaky, anachronistic stream of jokes emanating from the stage. Simon apparently issued an update of sorts to the classic comedy in 2002, and I can only assume that the Players company is working from that refreshed script, with its references, for example, to texting a suicide note (ha ha). But Simon was already 75 at the time of that reissue, so how tuned in was he, really, to the zeitgeist of a new era?

Look: the story of two divorced men of opposite personalities and lifestyles living together, one a slob, one a neat freak, is not especially fresh. And when you add in a frankly offensive portrayal of two young women (one of them—gasp!—a divorcee) as potential sexual props in the lives of the middle-aged male characters, the show reeks of stale attitudes and assumptions. An on-set wall poster listing Yankees championships up through 2009 isn’t fooling anyone: this is a story crafted in the era of “Mad Men.” A revival of the original Simon show would make more sense than this half-baked update.

Anyway, old chestnut or cracking new property, “The Odd Couple” by Peoria Players has a more than capable cast. Nate Downs never disappoints, and his Oscar Madison is by far the most interesting character on stage. Downs always brings a unique humanity to his portrayals, and he makes Oscar very naturally empathetic. Dave Schick has his moments as Felix Unger, but his performance is somewhat uneven. The relationship between Oscar and Felix must originate early in contrasts so that there can be a satisfying rapprochement later. The chemistry between these two actors never fully develops. The ensemble of poker-playing buddies works very well. Joel Shoemaker as Roy and Jim Willard as Speed give able and competent support, while Shane Pankey as Murray the Cop is a terrifically bonding glue to hold the proceedings together. And Ben Maxwell is sweet and funny as the guileless Vinnie.

Trish Ballard and Kate Kennedy shoulder the unfortunate burden of portraying female playthings Gwen and Cecily (a perplexing homage to Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest”). The Brit sisters are simply annoying for every moment they’re on stage. Ballard and Kennedy can’t be faulted, though they might be bothered to brush up those accents a bit.

With so many new and interesting comedies produced by young playwrights every year, one can’t help but wonder why it’s necessary to return so often to this stagnating well. And if it is necessary, why not play it straight to period?

The Odd Couple continues at Peoria Players Theatre Thursday, October 9 through Saturday, October 11 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, October 12 at 2 pm. Tickets are $12 for adults and $9 for students 18 & under and are available at the Peoria Players Box Office, by calling 309-688-4473 or online at

Posted October 6, 2014