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Photograph by Tom Chargin

Simonized: David Pichette (from left), Maureen McVeery, Sheila O'Neill Ellis and Peter Van Norden cut up on the couch in SJ Rep's take on Neil Simon's 'The Odd Couple.'

Oscar Worthy

SJ Rep revives the perfectly mismatched roommates Felix and Oscar in 'The Odd Couple'

By Michael J. Vaughn

WE ALL KNOW Timothy Near can work wonders on a stage, but how did she get a living room wall to do a spit take? It was opening night for San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of The Odd Couple, and Oscar Madison was heading upstairs to partake of the Pigeon sisters, suitably warmed up by roommate Felix Ungar's sad tales. Felix delivered the three words designed to ruin the evening--"I'm not going"--but before Peter Van Norden could deliver Oscar's comic freeze, a china plate took a dive from the wall behind him. Van Norden handled it perfectly, turning to gaze at the suicidal flatware as the audience enjoyed a prolonged burst of laughter.

The moment may have been accidental, but the rest of the show's gags were played to perfection--even, occasionally, timed to the music. The Flying Pickle Incident. The Vacuum Cleaner Waltz. The Cigarette-Eating Lighter. Felix's mad first-act chase around the living room is more like a ballet with furniture.

Director Near had something of a head start, working with a cast that has done a combined 81 Rep productions. The near-psychic sense of ensemble brought out things that are sometimes lost about Neil Simon's 1965 smash--like the lightning-fast quippery of the opening poker game. (My own favorite card sharks were Howard Swain as the ever-distracted Vinnie and Michael Butler, a stunning contrast in normalcy as Roy the accountant.)

The biggest challenge belongs to the leads, who have to dodge the gargantuan legacy of Matthau/Lemmon/Klugman/Randall and seize the immortal divorced roommates as their own. With an edgier voice and presence than his Ungarian ancestors, David Pichette manages this remarkably well, making even the infamous nasal honking subtly different. Van Norden is slightly less successful, although I don't see how you can do the potato chip couch dance without evoking Klugman.

Nevertheless, the ghosts of icons past are pale enough that we can see the pain and loneliness behind Simon's masterful interplay, and be surprised, perhaps irrationally, at the finality of its ending. The young playwright, after all, had no idea that he was creating characters for the ages, that Felix and Oscar would be visiting our living rooms for generations to come.

Other fine touches came from the musical jokes--Felix appearing from his ruined dinner to the climax of Pagliacci's aria, the duo's silent warfare backed up by "I've Got You Under My Skin"--and Shigeru Yaji's costumes, notably Felix's last-act pinstripe suit and Vinnie's jazzy bowling shirts. The best modern-day contrast was provided by the opening curtain, accompanied by enough poker-game cigar haze to set off smoke alarms for a mile.

The Odd Couple plays Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through June 22 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $20-$48. (408.367.7255)

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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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