Light comedy is remarkably popular in TV and movies. It might seem like cheap pop fare, but live performance of a sitcom-like script can be a strangely satisfying experience. There’s a depth in live performance with an audience that can enhance even the hokiest comedy. Bereft of glossy packaging, scoring and laugh track, raw reality can edge its way through situation comedy without compromising the overall sense of fun. Lemonade Theatre manages this with its debut show: The Odd Couple, Female Version.) Neil Simon’s 1980s female re-framing of his classic 1965 comedy is a double retro echo that conjures images of old re-runs of the classic sitcom. Jessica Betts directs a cozy, small stage production of the play this month on the stage of the Next Act Theatre.
Based on the original 1965, the comedy plays out like three episodes of a sitcom...live onstage. There’s no laugh track...only the laughter of others in a very large living room that only happens to be the intimate space of the Next Act Theatre. The set is the apartment of the sporty, casually untidy Olive Madison. Olive is played by Brittany Ann Haut. Olive gets some of the best lines in the script. In the wrong hands, Simon’s humor can plod along with an annoyingly percussive punchline.To her credit, Haut plays all the humor with a totally straight face, which overcomes some of the overwhelming jokey-ness of the script. Haut’s approach might run the risk of underselling some of the humor, but this is vastly preferable to cloyingly exaggerating the comedy.
As the play opens, Olive is having a few friends over for a game of Trivial Pursuit. Her friend Florence is conspicuously missing, which is a bit of a curiosity for everyone involved until it is discovered that she and her longtime husband have split quite suddenly and abruptly. Comic tensions mount as a despondent Florence shows up specifically NOT to play Trivial Pursuit. A respectably poised Carrie Johns plays a very precise person who has been cast into a world of uncertainty after over a decade of marital stability. Johns manages admirable success with the subtle intricacies of being both totally in control of her immediate surrounding and completely vulnerable. Naturally Olive is going to offer her to move-in temporarily. Naturally things are going to get complicated between the two of them. What follows is safe, predictable comfort comedy made all the more comfortable by a couple of really enjoyable actresses.
Haut and Johns are supported by a cast. Florence and Olive’s friends include a pleasantly blunt Michelle White as Sylvie, a subtly commanding Marina Dove as their off-duty police officer friend Mickey, the endearing Sheng Lor and Megan Harrington as their warmly obtuse friend Vera. Invariably, Olive manages to coax Florence into something of a date with a couple of co-residents of the apartment played with ample exotic charm by Jesse Kaplan and Dennis Lewis as Jesus and Monolo: the Costazuela brothers.
Co-Producers Audwin Short and Michelle White bring a fun, little “hello” to the stage with this light comedy. It’s a humble, little sitcom, but there’s genuine fun brought to the stage by Betts and company. A strong first show for Lemonade.
Lemonade Theatre Productions’ staging of The Odd Couple: Female Version runs through May 12 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online.
Welcome to Milwaukee Lemonade Theatre. This town has lost a couple of prominent theatre outfits this season. It’s nice to see a the first of a couple of new companies to debut this year. (On the other side of the summer, Milwaukee welcomes Kira Renkas’ Aura Theatre Collective.)