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North County Players present The Odd Couple' this weekend


February 22, 2001|By JAMES DAVID PATTERSON, Special to this newspaper

BRAWLEY — Monday evening I had an opportunity to see a run-through of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" staged by the North County Players at Palmer Performing Arts Center here.

"The Odd Couple" will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday, all in Palmer Performing Arts Center.

The cast and crew were busy preparing for this weekend's performances. There was an air of excitement and anticipation that can be addictive for theater people like myself.

It was good to see familiar faces — Aubrey Cox of Calipatria, Frank Guizar of El Centro and Mark Saracusa of Brawley worked with me on "Picnic" at Imperial Valley College in 1998.


It also was good to see a familiar script. "The Odd Couple" has become part of our American culture. The play became a major motion picture, which became a successful television series that still runs in syndication.

"The Odd Couple" is about Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, two divorced men. Felix is a news writer for CBS; he has to have everything neat, clean and in its proper place. Oscar is a newspaper sports writer; he only does laundry when he can't find any socks.

Felix has just been thrown out of his home after 12 years of marriage. He has nowhere to go. Oscar has a large apartment on New York's Riverside Drive into which Felix moves.

Perhaps Neil Simon's most popular work, "The Odd Couple" is a brilliant mixture of sharp characterizations and smart dialogue. In fact, theater professionals often comment that it's hard to do a bad production of "The Odd Couple" simply because it is so well-written.

In the North County Players' production, the characters and dialogue find a nice home with some of the better actors in Imperial County.

The role of Oscar Madison was created on Broadway by Walter Matthau. Matthau recreated the role for the film. Then the blustering sports writer was crystallized in the television series by Jack Klugman. In the NCP production, Jason Contreras of El Centro portrays the hardened sportswriter with a touch of the "I'll never grow up" Peter Pan twist.

The play really belongs to Felix Unger; it's his story. The role was created on Broadway by none other than Art Carney. Jack Lemmon developed the character for the film. And Tony Randall will always be remembered from his television portrayal of this Everyman character who struggles to maintain order in his personal life against the backdrop of the never-ending world crises that make up his day as a news writer.

Imperial resident Bob Nelson, director for the NCP production, cast Saracusa as Felix Unger.

This is a stretch for Saracusa, and a gamble for Nelson, and it pays off. I've seen far too many productions where Felix Unger is played as weak and effeminate — that's not what Neil Simon intended. Both men, Felix and Oscar, are men in every sense of the word. Saracusa maintains the manhood of the character while charming us with his cloth napkins and London broil.

Felix and Oscar are surrounded by old friends who gather once a week to play poker. Dave Hutcheson of El Centro continues to entertain Valley audiences as Speed, a bit of a grouch who just wants to play cards.

Brawley resident Mike Cox returns to the stage after many years as Roy, CPA and friend to Oscar Madison. Cox has a good sense of timing and contributes to every scene he's in.

Jim Hite of Brawley delivers a remarkable performance as Vinnie, the one in every group who's just a little slow on the uptake.

Guizar rounds out the poker bunch as Murray, a police officer who is probably the last one on the scene of any crime.

All this manhood is contrasted well with two sisters who live upstairs from Oscar Madison — Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, played by Brawley resident Frances Hernandez and Aubrey Cox, respectively. They respond more quickly to Felix's gentleness than to Oscar's machismo and, in the end, provide the unconditional acceptance that Felix needs to heal from his sudden divorce.

If there is a negative worth mentioning, the set design for this production is flat. Palmer's stage is too wide and too shallow. The flat set design often results in flat, side-to-side movement of the actors under Nelson's direction.

At $5 general admission and $2 for students and seniors, tickets to "The Odd Couple" are the best deal in town. Reservations can be made by calling 344-6116.

Patterson is a drama and speech instructor at Imperial Valley College.

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