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Actors of Theatre at the Center’s Odd Couple Try to Redefine “Space Oddity”

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Norm Boucher and George Keating in The Odd Couple.

Before there was a film rendition, a sitcom, an animated sitcom featuring a cat and a dog, a revival sitcom featuring the 1980s, and finally yet another sitcom featuring Chandler Bing from Friends, there was a Neil Simon play known as The Odd Couple.

Why yes, Virginia, The Odd Couple was once, in fact, nothing but a humble play, reciting a tale as old as Cain and Abel, Laurel and Hardy, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. And it is now a play in which our Indiana neighbors over at Theatre at the Center have given themselves the challenge of reviving. The play opens Thursday, July 14, at Theatre at the Center, Munster, Indiana. (Details below.)

I took the time to chat with the stars of said revival, George Keating and Norm Boucher (Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, respectively) where we talk about comedy, the genius of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and eating French fries with a fork.

Third Coast Review: As actors, what enticed you in reviving the story of The Odd Couple for today’s audience?

George Keating: Personally, I’ve loved this setup from a very young age. Watching the original television show with my father, watching reruns throughout my life, seeing the play at various professional and nonprofessional venues. It has always been a part of my consciousness, and I’ve looked forward to truly being the right age to play it.

It’s a great story about friendship. Real, middle-aged friendship. As you get older, these long-standing chosen relationships become so important. Real friends know your history, they’ve seen you at your best and your worst. The longer you live, the more time life has to throw you curve balls, right? Once you get through a few decades together as friends, the relationship becomes less about the excitement of having fun together and more about supporting each other along the winding road (even the boring stuff). And finally, the most beautiful thing about this play is how different all the guys are (not just Felix and Oscar, but the other pals, too). Yes, they get on each other’s nerves and pick at each other, but you know that they are in these relationships for the long-haul. They truly accept each other. They accept each other for who they are and where they are. They balance each other and grow from their differences the way any truly healthy relationship does.

That’s what I love: the healthy relationship–challenging each other, supporting each other, being truly generous, incredibly personal but with a willingness to overlook certain things, learning from each other and ultimately finding balance. They each come out changed and better, somehow, for having known each other – and this relationship will continue to get stronger as life presents other challenges. I love that Felix never gets defensive or petty with Oscar. Felix listens and accepts Oscar’s criticism because he admires Oscar, really. Felix has the good sense to overlook some of Oscar’s jabs. They are not intended to wound. Felix trusts Oscar enough to let him poke fun at him.

As an actor, it’s a dream come true. It’s a dream I don’t think I knew I had. Funny, but I wasn’t working all these years thinking of Felix as a “dream role” but once I landed it, I thought: “I’ve been waiting my whole life to play this! Right on.”

Norm Boucher: I played Oscar 10 years ago at Drury Lane Oakbrook, and it was, at the time, the biggest show I’d ever done. I think it’s the best written comedy of all time. I’m excited to be doing it again at TATC! It’s a much more intimate space, so I think the comedy will play with more subtlety. I’m also older, and hopefully wiser, so I have a new perspective on the material. In terms of “today’s audience,” funny is funny, and this play is really funny.

3CR: So The Odd Couple, which is arguably a study in opposing extremes (albeit comedically), focuses on very structured archetypes. One guy who is wildly Type A versus another guy who is wildly not. Does either of you relate to your characters, or are you too an opposing extreme to the roles you are now representing?

GK: I have qualities of both of these men.

I mean, my car interior is definitely Oscar Madison territory. Sometimes I shock myself when I “come to” and see what a disaster it really is. About once a year I clean out my car and think: This is definitely not what people would expect from me. Just piles and dust and dog hair and empty bags and receipts and books and music and shoes and sweatshirts and random pairs of underwear (mine!) and…well, you get it.

But if I had to fall to one archetype or the other, I am a Felix Ungar. I like things the way I like them. I try really hard not to be bossy and picky, but I just can’t help myself. I’m sure I get on people’s nerves without even realizing it. And then I have a horrifying moment when I realize how fussy I am being and find myself quite embarrassed–or NOT embarrassed! (at a certain point you’ve just got to own who you are). I’ve learned to laugh at myself. And I’ve had to work very hard to cultivate a sense of staying calm and rolling with it. I get better the older I get. And I get along best with people who are reaching for the same balance that I am. Seeing your own freak potential and working to reach to other side.

Except when it comes to food. I am DEFINITELY a Felix when it comes to food. I like it the way I like it, and I have no interest in having it any other way. People remark upon the specificity of my questions in regards to menus in restaurants. I go out of my way not to be a jerk, but I am terribly specific about my food.  Sometimes I will start a sentence with: “I’m not a snob, but…” and someone who knows me really well will cut me off and say: “Yes, you are.” That makes me laugh. Fast food makes me so incredibly uncomfortable, just as a concept, even. I eat pizza very rarely, but when I do it’s with a knife and fork. French fries, too, with a fork. Isn’t that ridiculous? These are not things that I ever decided, they are just a part of who I am.

NB: I’ve often thought that I would love to play Felix someday, because in real life, he’s much closer to who I really am. I can be fussy, I keep a neat house, and I’m a great cook. Of course, I look and sound like Oscar, and I just love him. What I share with him is his zest for life, and excitement for focusing on the here and now. I’m not the greatest when it comes to planning ahead.

3CR: There are many interpretations of The Odd Couple floating around our cultural ether. Are you drawing any inspiration from that, or are you modeling your creative juices after something else?

GK: Oh wow. One would be foolish to ignore the brilliant actors who made these roles famous. Matthau and Lemmon, Matthau and Carney, Klugman and Randall. I love them. I admire them. I see them and hear them without even trying. I am very curious about Art Carney’s Felix, because short of going to Lincoln Center, I cannot watch his portrayal. I’ve looked up reviews and pictures of the original Broadway production in order to get a sense of how Mr. Carney may have originally portrayed him.

Tony Randall is the most accessible Felix. All of those TV episodes are available, thank the theater gods. They have a different vibe from the play and the movie (not having been written by Simon), but they are very useful. Jack Klugman is so, so wonderful as Oscar. I love watching him more than Randall as I prepare, because I get this true sense that they are enjoying and appreciating each other throughout all of the sitcom nonsense. I’m referring to the characters (not the actors), because poor Felix is such a nervous wreck. Klugman is so easy and kind and fun-loving–even sweet–as Oscar. You see how crazy Felix makes him, how frustrated he gets, but he’s never ugly or mean or truly angry. It’s just so brilliant. And I think these qualities are what will make Norm Boucher so fun to play opposite. He has so many of these qualities. He makes me laugh, he’s incredibly supportive and kind. I’m sure I drive him crazy with my rehearsal process, and we’re both okay with that (At least he makes me believe he’s okay with it, which is pretty damn generous. We’ve worked closely on a few other plays). I am a big fan of Norm’s and I am so lucky to get to create this with him, with our specific chemistry lending itself to the play.

Now that we’re getting close to rehearsal, I am removing myself from watching other actors and returning for inspiration to Neil Simon’s words only. The words of the play. Analyzing. Asking all the questions for myself. Making note of questions I need to ask Norm and Larry Wyatt.

I’m filling in the blanks, too. Frances, Felix’s wife, never appears in the play, but her character is terribly important to my portrayal. I am currently working on “casting” Frances. I need to have a very specific idea of this woman to whom I’ve spent 12 years married. To whom I constantly refer as “my beautiful wife.  my wonderful wife.” Creating for myself the apartment in which she and I live on West End Avenue. Searching the play for clues so that I can be as specific as possible. All of this life which happens before the play even starts (and the audience will never see) needs to walk in the door with me. There’s no time for any of that in rehearsal. And surely some of it may go out the window. But this is all part of the process. I’m thrilled, happy, and more than a little bit terrified.

NB:  I grew up on the Klugman/Randall TV show, and think that they were perfect in their roles. When I did the show last, I watched the movie for the first time–why wouldn’t you try and take inspiration from the man who invented the role? Matthau’s timing is flawless.

3CR: What do you inevitably hope the audience will take away after a viewing of your production?

GK: Audiences will see themselves in this play. How ridiculous we all are. How crazy we can all act when put under stress. But mostly, they will laugh. Neil Simon’s words are masterful. From working with Larry Wyatt, our director, at the auditions, I could tell that he has a real passion for this play and a true understanding of not just its circumstances, but its rhythms and music.

There is also something very satisfying about honoring the time in which this play was created. The sixties were a tremendous transition in America. Seismic changes were about to take place on all fronts: civil rights protests had begun, America had recently suffered the horrifying tragedy of the JFK assassination, and here is this quiet little story about these two middle-aged men living their lives in America’s greatest city, helping each other deal with the terror that divorce can inspire. Not to mention the aesthetic of this time–clothes and hair and home décor–so specific and recognizable.  It’s fun to get to step into that world.

Life is beautiful, yes, but it’s also hard. A real challenge sometimes. And you need friends. Real friends to accept you when things are tough. Real friends let you act the way you need to act, say the over-the-top things you need to say, but pull you back before you get out of hand. Friends who can just sit with you. Let you spend the night, even, because you just don’t want to be alone. Breakups are crushing and emotional when you’re in your twenties, but when you’re in your forties and beyond and you’ve built a life with someone and now you have to find a new life…that’s a whole different thing. In your forties, you’re generally looking back on more than you have ahead of you, right? The stakes are different after a certain age and the people who are still around are there for a reason.

NB: I just want them to laugh a lot and have a really good time. With everything going on in the world right now, I think everyone could use a good laugh. I also think that this play has a lot of heart. These guys love each other, and even though they drive each other nuts, at the end of the day they’re still best friends.

3CR: And finally, but of course, what’s the oddest thing you’ve done as a roommate?

GK: I lived platonically with a woman friend for a few months. I was between homes, and she was kind enough to let me stay with her. One day she asked me, “Why do you leave the kitchen cabinets open?” I had no answer. I didn’t even realize I did it. But sure enough, once she mentioned it, I started noticing that after I’d been in the kitchen for any reason or length of time whatsoever, all of the cabinet doors would be standing wide open! I still don’t know what that was about, but I don’t do it any more. I love to analyze and posit psychological reasons for human behavior – my own behavior, the behavior of others—but I never could come up with any psychological motivation for that one. People do weird things, and sometimes there’s no good reason.

NB: You’ll have to ask my wife.

*    *   *

George Keating was last seen at Theatre at the Center in their productions of Grand Hotel, The Petrified Forest, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Godspell. He is also the co-founder of Theatrebam Chicago and the co-creator of Schoolhouse Rock Live! Other credits include work done at Goodman, Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane, Northlight, Chicago Shakespeare and Court Theatre.

Norm Boucher is also a returning TATC actor, with previous productions including The 39 Steps, Big Fish, On Golden Pond, The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical, The Fox on the Fairway, Guys and Dolls, The Producers and A Christmas Story, and additional credits from Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Marriott Lincolnshire, and Court Theatre. Boucher has numerous commercial spots to his name and credits from the TV shows Chicago Fire and Early Edition.

The Odd Couple will be running at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana, from July 14 to August 14. Show times are 2pm Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30pm Sundays, with additional performances on select Thursday and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. Tickets are $40-$44 and may be purchased online, via phone at 219-836-3255, or at the box office.

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