During summer’s dog days, I like to drive down the highway west for half an hour and spend an evening sitting in “The only professional theater between Kansas City and Denver,” Abilene’s Great Plains Theater.
Last Friday I was not the only Manhattanite to brave a July downpour in order to be in the house for the first night of a new production of “The Odd Couple.”
Neil Simon’s most famous play worked a treat here, thanks largely to good casting and a pace that was quick rather than insistent. Director Robin Wighs, a K-State alum, made sure the proportions of the entertainment were maintained, and then pretty much let his energetic cast rip.
The play’s plot may have been forgotten during the years the TV series ran. Divorced slob Oscar—here played by long-time GPT stalwart Jim Hopkins—takes in his heartbroken friend Felix—Company Interim Artistic Director Doug Nuttleman—after he is ordered out of his own New York City abode by his fed-up wife.
You see, Felix is compulsively neat and emotionally weak. The fellows who play poker each week in the apartment worry that he is so overcome with grief after having been jettisoned that he will do himself violence. Not that they themselves are models of perfect stability and deportment.
Chris Delay, Christian Sommers, and Blue Earth locals Kim Riley and Glenn Davis are the card players. They insist that Oscar take in Felix in the first place. And then they aren’t all that happy when the neat-nik sanitizes their comfortably-grotty poker retreat. Yeah, his sandwiches are great. But coasters?
Felix uses a whole supermarket full of cleaning and kitchen products familiar in American homes of the early 1960s—Dutch Cleanser and Brillo pads, Saran Wrap and several others. These trade names aside, though, there is nothing very dated about the basic struggle here. Contemporary writers might stereotype Felix’s personality as “feminine” or turn the battle with Oscar into a political one, but the issues themselves remain the same. Some people are more comfortable with small-detail discipline than are others.
Oscar finally has had enough when Felix allows his emotions to ruin a dinner party with the Pigeon sisters, two characters who were especially popular with the Abilene crowd, mostly because of good performances by Kim McClay and Katherine S. Barnes, imported B.F.A. holders. But will the crisis cause the host to send his guest packing? And how will Felix ever adjust himself to single life?
The costumes here, by Peggy Riley (who does the costumes for those huge Manhattan High musicals) and sets and lighting, by Jimilee Rempe (Kim and Peggy Riley’s daughter) were serviceable. The cast, as is always the case in this theater, managed the little properties resets between the scenes.
Hopkins and Nuttleman, the real pros of the production, were goofy in well-considered ways, their mugging limited to best opportunities and their timing always right. But there was evidence of professional attention to detail in the work of the amateurs of the cast, too. Wighs had them posed around the poker table and had them counting beats before they opened the front door, for example.
And so this area production of the influential modern-classic of a play kept its audience engrossed and laughing for two and a half hours with no apparent sweat. When we emerged back into the July evening, the air hung heavy with the weight of summer rain we’d just about forgotten.