Move over, bromance and Frat Pack. A Girls Night Out is a splendid opportunity for a flurry of Neil Simon zingers and a bevy of funny ladies bringing their own style to the playwright’s benchmark comedy in “The Odd Couple (Female Version).”
This entertaining production by Dramatic License Productions kicks off their new theatrical mission: By Women, For Women, About Women. Hooray for this development.
While I applaud this venture, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the accomplished males who are also part of the artistic vision as well. The adroit Alan Knoll is at the helm of this gender-reversal revision, and not only does he know how to deliver wisecracks, but his staging is fluid and uncluttered. A veteran actor-director in St. Louis, Knoll has displayed terrific comic timing since his college days at St. Louis University.
Knoll extracts good work from his tight-knit ensemble, who easily slip into their iconic roles. The leading duo spar as friends who unfortunately discover they are severely incompatible roommates following one’s devastating break-up, while the other has messy issues. Kim Furlow as gruff sportswriter Olive Madison and Colleen Backer as the neurotic OCD-prone Florence Ungar are well-suited for their roles. Backer has a sweet naivete that adds charm to Florence while Furlow has an unmistakable take-charge personality that fits Olive.
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The gal pals who come over to play Trivial Pursuit in this 1986 flipped reboot provide a jolt of energy to the play’s staid structure. Carlyle native Kirsten Wylder is a hoot as sarcastic live wire Sylvie, while Carmen Larimore Russell is jocular police officer Mickey. Mara Bollini is frugal but ditzy Vera and Christine Alsop is an often-exasperated Renee.
While their group scenes crackle, the appearance of the hilarious Paul James and Phil Leveling as Spanish bachelors Manolo and Jesus Costazuela, double dates for a home-cooked dinner, is the spark that truly ignites the show. The pair, with their expressive dialogue, unwavering accents and sincere commitment to the parts, deliver blissful comic relief.
Let’s face it, Simon is a prolific playwright whose early work, by virtue of its confined contemporary styling and dated culture, hasn’t aged well. But the master of painful comedic situations and flawed but funny characters always displays his prowess at tossing off quips. Here, the premise of two opposites driving each other crazy makes us laugh, but the execution can appear stiff.
First produced on Broadway in 1965, “The Odd Couple” was Neil Simon’s third play and his first Tony Award. Twenty years later, when he rewrote it for women, it was his 22nd play. His formula is obviously successful, and the jokes hit as many times as they miss in his trademark snappy rat-a-tat-tat way.
But the conflicts between Olive and Florence aren’t entirely successful. Olive’s beefs on Florence’s neat-freak tendencies sometimes come across as too harsh. She could be perceived as a bully. The bickering gets tedious, and clearly Olive is hard while Florence is soft. The play is better when others are on stage, too.
The original work intended to portray a relationship not unlike the marriages the guys were no longer in because of divorce. Simon’s style. honed in TV scripts, was developing, and a flair for knocking off one-liners emerged, which resonated with audiences. It wasn’t until he delved more into his life, and the pathos that surfaced in his autobiographical works (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”) that he showed much depth.
Here, the female version is meant to be mostly light-hearted, but also has a modicum of heart. Female bonding is important to women, as later works like “Sex and the City,” “The Golden Girls,” and “Mamma Mia!” capitalized on, but had yet to make a societal impact in mid-’80s. In a world where “The Real Housewives” depict a very different kind of female relationship these days, “The Female Odd Couple” seems almost quaint and old-fashioned by comparison.
The production team sure had fun with the ’80s theme, notably Kyra Bishop’s accurate period scenic design, appropriate vintage costumes by Lisa Hazelhorst, and fine selection of the era’s pop hits.
It may be a different decade, but women sharing their steely resolve and remarkable resilience can resonate any time.
"The Odd Couple" (female version)
When: Thursday through Sunday
Who: Dramatic License Productions
Where: Chesterfield Mall, St. Louis, 63006
Tickets: 636-821-1746 or www.DramaticLicenseProductions.org