Thursday, 30 January 2014

Yin-yang buddies = The Odd Couple then & now

Plot quicky :  Since its launch in 1965, The Odd Couple's first act has been hailed by some critics as arguably the single-best scene of American comedy ever scripted for the stage. And maybe so. Even despite the considerable time-warp between that back-in-the-day moment and now.

Hot summer Friday night. New York City. Poker night at Oscar Madison's apartment where his mid-life bachelor gig plays out since his wife Blanche quit their marriage some six months back and escaped to California. The five players at the table take turns kvetching, snarling and growling about their lives, their wives, their fates and the crappy slow pace of the night's game. They scarf back leftovers out of Oscar's defrosted fridge -- whether aged cheese or mold doesn't particularly faze them. They fist their poker cards with gusto and throw chips and cards and commentary around as randomly as teenage burps or gas attacks.

Number six at the weekly table, Felix Ungar, is late, MIA. Unknown to his posse, his wife Frances has just drop-kicked him out of their house. When they learn this news, they fear he may be suicide-depressed. No wonder : he has just telegram'd his wife telling her that's what he is about to do. Divorce was typically a serious mid-life crisis for men back then -- marriage in the early 60's stood a 4:1 chance of succeeding. And both Oscar and Felix have failed the test. They are rejected husbands who work day-jobs, not lothario playboys of the Mad Men stripe who are serial cheaters. When Felix finally appears, his chums rally round to prevent a 12-storey fall from grace and the tale of Oscar-&-Felix and their upcoming life together under the same roof begins.

A Tale of Its Time :  I reckon no English-speaking North American can possibly not know of this iconic Neil Simon script. The original Broadway stage mount in '65 featured Walter Matthau and Art Carney. The 1968 movie paired Matthau with Jack Lemon. Then TOC morphed into a 70's t.v. sitcom starring Jack Klugman as Oscar and Tony Randall as Felix. To recap : both of Simon's characters are professional news writers, but that's about where the similarity ends. Oscar (Andrew McNee) is a highly-paid cigar-chomping sports gob whose preferred lifestyle is casual / messy / live-for-the-moment, not unlike many sports contests. He's often tardy with the alimony and child support payments because of his saloon skills and chronic poker losing streaks. Bosom buddy Felix (Robert Moloney), meanwhile, is a fuss-o-matic : a neat-freak finicky neurotic who writes straight news for CBS and likes life orderly, from kitchen utensils to emotions. So unlike the more cavalier Oscar, Felix is rattled to the core now that his right-tight world has fractured and splintered.

The yin-yang personality clash set up by Simon survives mostly because we are parachuted, wholesale, back into the early 60's -- pre-VietNam; pre-Woodstock; pre-Steinem's Ms. magazine and the advances of feminism since. Too, the play features two long-time male buddies who're thrust together by chance, not design. Were they man-&-wife there would be no play. Sexual politics ain't yuk-yuk. Particularly today. But two age-old chums from Ike's time who play poker together? They can riff and natter and scold one another like frat-rats because comic incompatibility works when played out at this level. Indeed, Neil Simon's gift to the stage throughout his storied career has always been to find scads of punchy laugh-lines right in the midst of existential fear, heartache, and the uncertainties that pounce when dreams go awry. No better vehicle than this frozen-in-aspic script to prove the point.

WYSIWYG :  Director John Murphy does what he often does with timepiece material. He madcaps the action with lots of slapstick blocking and choreography. Wildly contorted individual facial gestures, hyped-up coughs, Keystone cop chases, 3 Stooges pratfalls -- they're all part and parcel of the current ACT re-mount. Murphy does take liberties with his casting : the poker bunch, ostensibly all in their 40's, include a couple of sexagenarians whose ages belie Simon's dialogue. But no matter to the 2014 audience eye. Because the fact is many groups of friends nowadays, both men's and women's, include 2-3 generations all playing well together in the same sandbox : age differences matter way less now than they did to our folks. The NYC cop in the poker bunch, Murray, was played by Joel Wirkkunen who gave the most robust and witty turn of the group. But Josh Drebit's Speed as the ever-impatient card sharp was a mere 1/2 kph behind in comic delivery. Great body language in the card table routines from each of the older two, too -- Alec Willows as Roy, Oscar's long-suffering accountant, and Cavan Cunningham as the penny-pinching and henpecked Vinnie.

Murphy's slapstick approach coupled with direction to his cast to hyper-ventilate Simon's dialogue saves TOC from its fundamental irrelevance in today's uber-caffeinated-nanosecond-attention-span culture. Because who cannot laugh when Oscar tells the ever-agitated Felix early on : "You have a low threshold for composure. You're the only man in the world with clenched hair." But Simon also manages to make his characters empathetic, as well as comic, such as when Oscar confesses he's lonely living alone. He invites Felix to move in to his 8-room apartment : "I love you almost as much as you do," he says. "I'm proposing to you."

Felix agrees. And before the night is over he has antisceptick'd the entire pizza-box Chinese take-out carton gerbil-cage apartment. Director Murphy does this cleverly, having the poker bunch act as Felix's proxies to complete the task. Scene 2 opens on the next poker night with the set in full-Felix fashion : the table is decked out with coasters to prevent watermarks; oversize serviettes for all; BLT sandwiches on crustless pumpernickel; ashtrays emptied after each ash is flicked. But when Roy smells Lysol and ammonia on the playing cards, the group exits en masse stage left in a snit over F.U.'s fastidious buzz-kill of their Friday fun. Still, it's what Oscar sees as the "wimp factor" vis-a-vis wife Frances that drives him the most crazy. He puzzles at Felix rhetorically : "In a world full of roommates why do I choose the tin man?"

The second act looks promising for the odd couple. Oscar arranges a soiree with two British sisters, the Pigeons, who live in the same building. Felix, master chef, plans the meal, a London broil. But when widow Gwendolyn (Sasa Brown) and divorcee Cecily (Kate Dion-Richard) arrive, he goes nearly catatonic and can hardly talk due to first-date jitters. Only when Oscar repairs to the kitchen to fetch drinks does Felix warm up, showing the girls pix of his family. Felix whimpers "Divorce, it's a terrible thing." Cecily, with a perfect Liverpool lilt, quips back : "It can be if you don't have the right solicitor!" Immediately, however, she realizes Felix is in "unmanly" tearful pain. Soon there's a 3-way crying jag as they all swoon over their imperfect but lost marriages. In a heartbeat both of them love "poor, sweet, tortured" Felix.

Suffice to say the London broil burns to a crisp in the kitchen. A fire bell sounds, as if to signal the set's kitchen oven is on fire. But No!, truth is the hazer ACT was using to generate faux-smoke shorted out, smoked up a storm and set off the Stanley theatre alarm for real. The play resumed after a 14-minute delay as firefighters from two streets north re-set the alarm panel. [Well handled, ACT team!]

Back to script: The incinerated London broil forces the party to move to the Pigeons' apartment, but Felix demurs out of shyness and guilt over his ex-, Frances. Oscar both implodes and explodes over the botched date. Their ensuing hunt-&-chase around the apartment with Oscar threatening to kill his buddy was vintage. Even mid-chase Felix manages to straighten the dining table chairs and scoop up some paper litter off the floor. He's promptly sent packing but winds up, of course, bedding down with the Pigeons in their upstairs roost -- irony and fun being Simon's signature traits. 

N.B. The Pigeon sisters were very welcome comic relief within this comic romp. Relief because up till then the show had been as if plastered with For Men Only stickers given all the poker motif among a bunch of grunty post-WWII men. When the Pigeons descended, these two birds delighted at every move : they sat almost in each other's laps, finished each other's sentences, sported complementary 60's dresses, had matching red and blond bouffie hairdo's and shared a swack of Liverpool giggles. Pure fun !  

Production values :  David Roberts' set was a nice cut at 1965 Manhattan chic. Ceiling arches. Pale blues and pinks on the walls,  inset applique flower accents, scalloped furniture throughout, and a chrome floorstand ashtray to covet even for a non-smoker. Barbara Clayden's costumes were perfect for the times, even slobby Oscar's What Not To Wear blue/brown sport coat and pant mix. Marsha Sibthorpe's lighting was spot-on, particularly the solar eclipse blue lighting during scene changes by the poker bunch. And last but not least, sound designer Murray Price underscored the antics with some tight jazz quartet charts matching progressive sounds one would surely have heard at Birdland in the 60's.

Who gonna like : This is a period piece, as noted. Some may find the trip down memory lane a chance to smile and smirk, sentimentally, at the mores of a distant era. Others may find the dialogue too dated and man-centric for their liking, now, nearly 50 years hence. Still, Andrew McNee as Oscar brings a nuanced interpretation to his mostly macho role, and Robert Moloney does some fine excruciations as the tightly-wound Felix. Neil Simon is a master of the genre. His lines and timing provide much to amuse in a performance bursting with energy and wit. 


Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Brimful of Asha is pure Canadiana

A Brimful of Asha is a lively, witty and clever verbal memoir. Written by Ravi Jains, it is an extended conversation between his real-life mom Asha and Ravi himself. In 1974 she was an immigrant from the Indian sub-continent; a half-decade later along comes her cheeky Indo-Canadian second son. Now in his mid-30's, Ravi directs himself and his never-before-actress mom in the piece. The show takes place at a Toronto kitchen table, a shiny Ikea knock-off. Via yak-yak between mom-&-son, the show recounts his folks' manipulations to arrange a marriage for Ravi on a trip he made to India in 2007 to conduct a theatre workshop. He was footloose and fancy free then at age 27. A recent theatre arts specialty grad, he'd set his effervescent personality to the challenge of launching a theatre company in TO prior to his brief India gig. Marriage was without a doubt the last thing on his mind.

Now it's no great secret that arranged marriages for countless decades were de rigeur in India. Whether they were parents (plus grandparents, aunts, uncles &c) of boys or girls, families worked at match-ups, often using newspaper ads and resumes called bio/data to pre-screen prospects and their DNA pedigree. But also, out of superstition, to screen their place of birth, day of birth, and time-of-birth to triangulate just the right match. That the wealth of the prospective family might factor in to all this, oh perish the thought...

On stage Ravi's half of the dialogue consists of his riffing off memory-bits of his parents' pre-nup ambushes of him as he traveled across India, ambushes ad nauseam until he'd had it right up to the brim and over the top.

For her part Asha (her name means "hope" in Hindi) sits stoically at the table and responds to Ravi's gripes. She's no slouch or pushover. Basically she accuses her talented theatrical offspring of being Golden Globe Hopeless! in each of the Son category, the Man-Card category, the Marriage category, and the Common Sense category. These exchanges they pull off with such love and risible gusto, however -- smart-aleck 1st-gen son fends off mom's insistent but impish zingers -- that the crowd giggles almost incessantly throughout the show's 90 minutes.

This is not a typical stage play. This is staged spontaneity. Everyone is greeted with a hand-shake as they enter by both Ravi and Asha. They are invited on to the stage to enjoy a samosa (I scarf'd down two and was offered more). Ravi and Asha go up and down the aisles greeting folks with obvious pleasure. It's as if everyone's being invited to an outsize family reunion. 

No question, any pretext of a proscenium arch or 4th wall separating cast from audience goes poof. When Ravi introduces his mom at the start and she gets a big Woo-hoo! from the crowd, Ravi ad libs that she got a bigger welcome than he did. Well, she retorts, "The play is called A Brimful of Asha, not A Brimful of Ravi!" Even more huzzah's from the crowd. Throughout they invite the audience to shout-out their support for one character's version of "the truth" or the other's. Lots of laughs and claps for clever one-liners plus interjections of Oh no! and similar gasps and guffaws mark the progress of the night. E.g. when Ravi recalls his rules for marriage, number two is "I won't marry just anyone" to which Asha responds in a nano-second: "That's the stupidest rule I ever heard of." Uproar! throughout the room.

Mom explains she's desperate to hold on to her old country values. 
Ravi protests that he wants "love", not a "match". And he wants to do it in his own event-time mode, not mom and dad's clock-time mode. That in India everyone wants to know why Ravi is not yet married bothers him not one bit. His aunt, meanwhile, puts it this way : "Ravi, what's the matter with you? Just get married, get it over with, we'll have a party, it'll all work out!" At another point a relative chides : "Can we just sign the papers, break out the love juice and get on with it?" In exasperation Ravi tells his mom : "You and Papa should just consider me dead!" and Asha fires back : "We can't consider you dead until you're married!" Dare I say mostly the women did the laughing at that one?

Playwright Jains' devices of "scripted improv" and meet-&-greet the patrons is clever and effective. Mom and son disagreeing vigorously, yes, but both agreeing about the cultural gaps that occur between generations of immigrants. She admits she's hooked-back to the old country with its values. He, of course, champions the break-out urges of kids born in this exciting new world countless longitudes to the West. No doubt this all works in part because show-goers are often immigrant or 1st-2nd generation newbies here themselves. They can't help but relate to these culture clashes, particularly when they're wrapped up in Asha and Ravi's kitchen table patois. (Said patois included various soliloquies by Ravi in Hinglish to replicate the remembered family discussions : his dialogue tickled the ears with precisely the intended funnery.) But we know love is not all smirks and giggles. There are also shouts & murmurs, hints & allegations, tears of pain & cries of rage that round out this scene : family matters, all in all, good, bad and ugly.

So on the one hand the show is redolent of Ground Hog Day in its re-telling of the same basic tale time and time again. A 2-hander play with a 1-joke storyline, arguably. Gotta say there's a whiff of monotony to the mom-&-son exhanges, ultimately -- the show's perhaps 7-10 minutes wordy-ish -- and mom's lines are a bit monochromatic in tone and hard to hear on occasion. That she had never acted before this play helps explain it, for sure. So those are cheap-seat quibbles at best. Fact is both Asha and Ravi are wholly engaging, endearing, and heart-warming with big genuine smiles and laughs. They present as family, and they welcome the audience to join them as new-found cousins at this reunion. You will be charmed at both the dramatic wordplay and cultural exposure you enjoy. And the samosas are de-lish!