Laugh Across The Atlantic
British and American comedies in tandem at the DBS Arts Centre
By Richard Lord
The Odd Couple is nowhere near being Neil Simon’s best play, yet it is by far his most successful piece of theatre. In fact, the original 1965 Broadway smash hit spawned an Odd Couple mini-industry that alone would have guaranteed Simon a comfortable income for the rest of his life. That mini-industry included a 1968 hit film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau which saw a sequel three decades later; an updated 1985 theatrical edition with Oscar and Felix still around as well as a female version with Olive and Florence; a TV series that ran for five successful years and is even today enjoying a lucrative after-life in syndication; not to mention repeated productions of the original play all across the globe - including the Singapore Repertory Theatre Couple that played here in the early part of this year. Clearly, Mr Simon must have hit just the right vein with his creation of that odd couple.
The vein that Simon hit - and continued for years to tap - is easily digestible comedy (even if some of it has stewed awhile in a slightly bitter broth) which looks at modern-day anxieties. The anxieties may be real, painful even, but Simon offers the balm of quick laughter to lessen any pain.
What Simon creates in most of his early plays - and does quite well here in The Odd Couple - is serve up a mid-20th century New York comedy of humours. And it helps your appreciation of these works if you know a bit about that New York. For instance, when one character hits his cigar-chomping poker buddy with this, “You wanna do me a favor? Breathe towards New Jersey.”, the joke is funnier if you know that northern Jersey was long known for his heavily polluted air.
Like the old comedies of humours, the characters are more like types and temperaments than fully drawn figures, but they do tell us something interesting about us and others we deal with most days.
Even for those who find early Simon much too thin a concoction, you have to give the fellow credit for his ability to spin out funny one-liners, a talent honed over years of writing and collaborating on Borsht Belt revues and radio and TV scripts. As a plus, these one-liners generally serve the purpose of delineating in an exaggerated way character traits of the play’s principles.
One good example: One of this play’s central characters describes how cautious his best friend in this way, “He wears a seat beat when watching a drive-in movie.” You want another good example? (Neil Simon always gives us dozens upon dozens of them.) We discover this same über-cautious fellow’s relationship with strong drink with this line: “For New Year’s Eve, he drinks Pepto-Bismol.”
Not all these one-liners work. Early Neil Simon had a tendency to keep on popping away at a funny target even when he had to strain to get out one more joke. The above fellow (whom we will soon discover is one Felix Ungar, hypochondriac, neatness-nanny and control-freak) is in this same exchange described as “the only man in the world with clenched hair.”
And the comic fuse in the plot is that following the shattering break-up of Felix’s marriage, he’s invited to move in with his best friend Oscar, a world-class slob and the source of the above quotes about his friend Felix. Guess what happens? That’s right, and it’s that sheer predictability that many see as a major shortcoming of The Odd Couple and most of Neil Simon’s first period of playwriting.
The SRT production falls back on the original ‘65 script, a strategy tipped off by the prices thrown about in the show. For instance, no one could stay in a poker game for just 25 cents in this new millennium of ours. Also, Oscar boasts that he has blown a cool $6.25 on a fancy wine for their big date with the Pigeon sisters. These days, it would be hard to scare up a decent/respectable bottle of Skid Row rotgut at that low price.
In mounting The Odd Couple, the Singapore Repertory Theatre, certainly one of the Singapore arts scene’s more encouraging financial success stories, made an interesting decision: to have the actors playing the sob Oscar Madison and the anally compulsive Felix Ungar switch roles midway through the run. (You wanna hear compulsive: this guy’s marriage counselor kicked him out of his office because he deemed Felix a “lunatic”.) This was artistically a gamble, but financially a sure bet, leading to sold-out houses as fans came twice to see the differences in the show.
The two actors who shared the central roles are two of Singapore’s strongest, especially in the realm of comedy. Remesh Panicker is a lumbering bear of a man, who imposes his presence with every appearance. Adrian Pang, on the other hand, is more in the classic Neil Simon mode: an Everyman who seems to fit uneasily into most situations.
The intuitive guess would have to be that Panicker was perfect as Oscar, while Pang was the quintessential Felix and never the twain should switch. Yet once again, intuition proves faulty and the two versions of the play proved quite entertaining and accomplished in their own ways. Wisely, the actors and their director Christian Huber decided not to have the two Oscars and Felixes as mere copies of each other, only with different actors. Pang and Panicker each created his own version of the two roles, nicely differentiated form his predecessor’s take.
As mentioned, Adrian Pang excels as an Everyman lost in a world he can’t control. His Felix walks into a room with a “Loser” sign hanging form his neck. Without missing a beat, this Felix goes from absolutely irritation to sympathetic and loveable: one moment, you want to choke him, five minutes, you want to hug him.
Pang’s comic timing was beautiful in places, such as when a befuddled Felix is trying to engage in small talk with the two Pigeon sisters and asks them “how long they’ve been in the United States“, then adds in politely intoned brackets “of America”. Pang even manages to catch some of Jack Lemmon’s gestures and intonation without being an obvious filch. (Lemmon played Felix in the original, box office smash film.)
Panicker’s Felix, by contrast, came off as a compact, neat man trapped in a body that obviously didn‘t fit him. His discomfort with his own physical being was expressed in a series of small but nicely comic gestures. It was from there no stretch at all to surmise that this Felix’s discomfort with himself transfers quickly to his discomfort in his failed marriage, or the messy, dusty world he inhabits/he’s been thrust into.
Remesh Panicker came at his role as Oscar like a bear with furniture... and a nose for fine wines. Whether prowling about with an amiable scowl or slowly igniting lust, this star sportswriter was a compelling figure. However, Panicker’s Oscar was also a little too polished to be a full triumph. Oscar should be more gruff, more rough-edged than this one. For instance, when Oscar decided to torment Felix by reverting to his old ways and making a mess of in their shared liing room, Panicker’s Oscar seems to be playing a part: this slovenliness should come naturally to Oscar, an act of reverting to form/of nature reclaiming its own.
Adrian Pang’s Oscar is more of a man who has enthusiastically embraced slovenliness in his second bachelorhood and is now trying to make the best of his new freedom. He’s gruff, but that’s because he needs that gruffness to overcome any temptation to tidy things up a bit. You could imagine this Oscar as the rebellious product of an archetypal Jewish mother who kept on pounding the Torah of cleanliness into his lazy head.
It’s curious that even though both actors were good as Oscar, they were clearly better as Felix. This is probably no reflection on the range of their acting abilities or directorial strategy but suggests the simple fact that obsessive-compulsive Felix with all his layers of guilt and repression is a juicier role than Oscar.
The play’s other characters are all basically foils to Oscar and Felix, there to lend support and illuminate some aspect of the Oscar-Felix relationship. As such, the best actors filling these roles can do is to perform their functions well. The Singapore Rep team gets mixed grades on this count.
Darius Tan was still a bit unsure of the proper focus for his role as Oscar’s accountant and poker-playing crony Roy. Tan was competent but nothing more.
Christian Lee, who over the last two years has specialised in nicely handling characters fuelled by ambiguity, was nowhere near as convincing playing Speed, the most diligently one-dimensional member of Oscar’s poker round. Speed should be all Big Apple grittiness and gall, but Lee (himself from New York) seemed uncomfortable in such a straight-deal characterisation: he chose to seek out nooks and corners the character just doesn’t have and his edgy performance seemed to belong to a different play.
(By the way, no one here, not even Lee, displayed an ease with New Yorkease, though what they did offer is not too disturbing. Remember, cast - ‘irony’ in the New York idiom is pronounced ‘eye-erny’.)
As in his recent turn as a hired killer in Pinter’s Dumb Waiter, Gerald Chew demonstrated that while he has fine acting abilities, he encounters difficulty reaching beyond a certain range. His Murray the cop was a solid performance, but what it portrays is not very credible as a poker-playing New York cop, vintage 1965. Chew would have had no worries here about being arrested/hauled in for impersonating a New York policeman.
Mark Waite hop-scotched around a number of accents, some of them American, and occasionally landed on a fitting one - the archetypal whiney New Yorker. (In the second edition of the show, he was more consistent in this department.) Despite this problem, he did put together a likeable and believable character which proved the strongest of the male supports in the production.
The two best supporting actors, however, were Beatrice Chia and Emaa Yong as the Pigeon sisters. Chia may have stumbled a bit with the British English accent, but she proved to have perfect pitch when it came it came to looks and gestures. She and Yong were both able to reap well-deserved laughs with a mere turn of the head, raising of an eyebrow. Yong, by the way, was assured with her accent as well as the physical humour that enriched the Pigeon scenes.
Christian Huber’s direction was crisp and polished, maintaining the proper pace to give Simon’s comedy its full unraveling. The blocking provided good visual set-ups to optimise the visual comedy - for instance, when the Pigeon sisters come down for dinner with Oscar and Felix. Here, the arrangement of the two ladies and the two guys pulls humour out of a mere look, a hesitant move.
Speaking of visuals, the sight gags were also usually well on the mark: the little bits of true-blue American schtick (such as Felix’s polite attempt to light Gwendolyn’s cigarette ending in his snaring the cigarette with the lighter) filled the evening with a string of light delights.
As one would expect from an SRT production, the production values here were exemplary. Set designer Sebastian Zeng was back in high form with a set that bespoke assured professionalism, easily malleable from Oscar’s bear-with-furniture lair/den to the transformed, sparkling flat of Felix’s determined/compulsive housekeeping. Suven Chan’s lighting design was effective without being obtrusive, as was the use and tone of the accompanying music. The only thing I would fault in this area was the door buzzes: while they may not have been stipulated in the text, they should have ad-libbed a few buzzes while people were waiting outside during long exchanges of dialogue as to how to answer the door.
The costumes are also good, though Oscar’s outfits at home could be a little more slovenly. On the other hand, Adrian-Felix first appears dressed like a schlemiel. Afterwards, his garb bespeaks a reforming schlemiel. The dare-we-be-too-sexy attire of the Pigeon sisters also fit the mood of their scenes well.
All in all, while it’s possible to do better versions of The Odd Couple, the one we had here - in both incarnations - was certainly a treat worth seeing - twice.
Right after The Odd Couple closed out its run at the DBS Arts Centre, in swept Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval. There is a certain consonance to this, as American critics have often referred to Ayckbourn as the “British Neil Simon”. This tends to irk British critics considerably, as the Brits feel their own boy (today Sir Alan) is clearly more sophisticated, polished and brings much more depth to the table than does the New Yorker.
What Ayckbourn certainly does bring is a surer grasp of stagecraft, as the native Londoner started working in theatre during his schooldays, then went into professional theatre right after leaving school at the age of 17. In addition to his prodigious writing abilities, Ayckbourn has acted in and directed a good many productions, including those involving his own works.
This intimate knowledge of the backstage as well as the page is what Ayckbourn brings to his 1984 opus, A Chorus of Disapproval. Set in a small provincial town soaked in the ethos of British suburbia, an area Sir Alan has long staked out as his special domain, A Chorus is a cool look at this milieu as the first tappings of Thatcherism starts to seep into it. And whereas the dominant tone of any early Neil Simon is in-your-face New Yorker, the governing tone of an Ayckbourn piece is apologetic suburban British.
In this play, Sir Alan drops/swoops in on an amateur light operatic group preparing to mount what we might call the first major Gay play. Not that the show deals with homoeroticism, but it was written by John Gay, an early 18th century British playwright and poet. This work, The Beggar’s Opera is considered by many to actually be the world’s first musical, as it contains much more spoken text than any major opera before or for a long time after it.
(The Beggar’s Opera was the inspiration for the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill classic Die Dreigroschenoper, better known in the Anglophone world as The Threepenny Opera. The latter was the source of the perennial favourite tune, “Mack the Knife”.)
In Ayckbourn’s suburban limbo, the amateurs of this lyric operatic society group have taken on a task that seems a few sizes too big for them. The way they bumble and stumble to a moderate but totally unexpected success is superficially the main concern of this play, but more important to the drama are all the backstage machinations that go on as the company moves to their final production.
The main catalyst for all the nasty business that transpires is Guy Jones, Leeds native and recent widower whose company has just moved him to the small town of Pendon. In the course of his brief Pendon residence, Jones climbs the rickety ladder of provincial success, moving from one bit part to a slightly bigger role all the way till he finally takes on the work’s central role, the robber king Macheath. Along his path to filling this part, the seemingly guileless Jones also beds two married women (including the wife of the show’s director) and inadvertently leads to huge financial losses for a flock of local businesspeople (including the other cuckold, who willingly gave his blessing to Jones’ doing/carrying out his conjugal duties for him).
No one could claim that A Chorus of Disapproval is Ayckbourn’s best work, but it does show a skilled dramatist working his craft even when the wells of inspiration are not at full flow. (It is also, interestingly enough, the only Ayckbourn play to date to have given a film version.) While not filled with great insights or sparkling, unforgettable characters, this Chorus is peopled with humorous types more pathetic than sympathetic who keep us involved for the full course of the evening and present a brief cavalcade of human emptiness.
One obvious difference between Ayckbourn and Simon is that the latter laces his earlier oeuvre with sparkling one-liners that can be easily lifted in contest, quoted in reviews, used to spark up daily repartee. By contrast, Ayckbourn’s comic lines are thoroughly embedded in the characters that say them and the context in which they appear. For example, when Daffyd takes Guy’s request for a drink after their initial meeting, he casually asks, by way of bonding with the newcomer, “Gin and tonic? Is that what they’re drinking in Leeds these days?” This thoughtless remark, which sounds so plain and flat reading it here, is actually funny in context and helps define the upcoming problems in the relationship between the two men.
Sometimes Ayckbourn will throw in a paradoxical aphorism that could well have been written by Oscar Wilde. For example, Daffyd on women: “They don’t like to be taken by surprise - unless they know well in advance.” The same authority on theatrical casting: “Doing The Beggar’s Opera without a Macheath would be a bit of a non-starter, even for Peter Brook.”
But for the most part, A Chorus of Disapproval succeeds as far as it does on its keen observance of the society it dissects and the humour arising from the tools of its dissection.
The appeal of a show about an amateur theatrical society for a real-life amateur theatrical society is obvious - and fraught with perils. Fortunately, Singapore’s Stage Club dodged most of these perils and came up with one of their most successful productions in the last two years.
Director Jeremy Samuel does a thoroughly commendable job here in bringing Ayckbourn’s work to life, even if his cast was a mix of Britons, French and locals. Samuel’s staging brought out the ideas and tones of the work in a persuasive manner, and he kept the action moving at an effective for most of the show - no easy task with this play. Along these lines, the scene changes were wisely handled by having the pianist play some fitting music to fill the time of transitions.
Just about every one of Samuels’ choices was correct, from the very simple set to the array and disarray of the characters. The stripped stage serves as a most fitting set on several grounds. On a literal level, it depicts a typical theatre company’s working conditions during rehearsal period. The realistic element here includes actors leaving rehearsals or gathering places by sauntering out the back door of the DBS Arts Centre into Merbau Road. On the metaphorical levels, the bleak stage proves a fine corollary to the bleak spiritual lives these suburbanites inhabit as well as the provincial limbo they inhabit.
Not everything in this production is assured and polished. The fight between Daffyd and Crispin Usher, for instance, is stagy and artificial. But to be fair, we should note that stage fights are difficult if not quite dangerous to all but well-trained actors. (The Stage Club, again, is an amateur society, albeit it a rather good one.)
For A Chorus of Disapproval to work well, you need strong anchors in those two key roles of Guy Jones and Daffyd Llewellyn, and that’s exactly what the Stage Club provided with Francois Cornu and Philip McConnell. Cornu shuffles about rather innocently, absorbing all the favours poured on him by the townspeople. And although he’s actually French, he does an admirable job handling the English accent.
If Cornu brought one small drawback to the role, it was in terms of physiognomy: while he is a rather pleasant looking fellow, Cornu is in no way the head-turningly handsome Guy that would have all the women of Pendon drawn to him at just a glance. But then again, in an amateur theatrical society, you can’t have it all.
More interestingly, as Cornu plays Jones we follow along admiringly until, at the end, we’re not quite sure if Jones was just a complete innocent fallen amongst predatory egos/suburban wolves whose very innocence allows him to watch the wolves wound themselves or if his naïve, all too accommodating veneer hides a wonderfully clever manipulator who’s been leveraging for everything he gets from bed time with the local lovelies to the prize role in the production.
As Daffyd, McConnell served up what was clearly the best performance of the evening. This Daffyd goes about the constantly distracted look of the destructively self-absorbed. We’re as much amused as appalled by this inconsiderate bastard, and when we gets his comeuppance, we feel a satisfaction and then a wipe of relief as we discover that he’s so self-absorbed even his own wife’s infidelity can’t prick him that deeply.
As Daffyd’s emotionally neglected wife, Grace Wan, who was quite strong in last year’s production of Agnes of God, was much less so in this production. One small shortcoming is that Wan is better with the North American variant of English than with a British version. More significantly, she rarely took full control of this role. At the beginning she showed insecurity by rushing her lines and looking embarrassed. Later on, Wan seemed still to be trying to achieve a full focus on the character of Hannah. Only at the play’s conclusion (and interestingly, the foreshadowing of it in the opening scene) did Wan’s acting talents come through clearly. (Her singing talents were ample whenever she raised her voice in song.) At these moments, Wan used a mere look, an embarrassed spill of words to express/suggest the poignancy at the heart of Hannah. It is then that we see that Hannah is one of the play’s only two innocents: perhaps, indeed, its only true innocent.
The supporting characters are almost without exception types who would not even recognise innocence or goodness if they were rammed up their nostrils. Sally Anderson played Fay Hubbard, the town’s resident man-eater, with a full-frontal attack; it worked, telling us that this Fay is so assured of her own allure that she can’t be bothered with wasting time on wiles and suggestion. Nick Perry was also assured as her husband Ian, comically chilling in the way he discards any scruples to get the cheap rewards he expects as his due.
Deborah Berger-North was fine as Rebecca. Cool and deliberate, this Rebecca measures every step, decision and risk for its cost-effectiveness. Standouts amongst the rest of the talented cast were Jim Hill, Peter Lugg and Mary Anne Cornu, who had just stepped in on the role of Bridget Baines, the owner of the pub where the troupe gathers. And we would be amiss if we did not offer a nod to Jonathan Ang for his riffs as the company’s piano player.
The closing lines from this play’s closing song, fittingly lifted right from the close of Gay’s original, are “But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow, / The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.” As this play wraps up, it might be taken as either coolly ironic or a wry encapsulation of Mr Jones’ fortunes. Or an encouragement to the members of The Stage Club who have not always done so well in the past; they should all have been happy with this show.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004