Soon after Mark La Mura scored the part of Oscar Madison in Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “The Odd Couple,” he got some advice from an actor friend who had played the part before.
“You watch,” La Mura said his friend told him. “People will come through the theater doors expecting the television show. But it’s not that!”
No, it’s not that.
The popular 1970s ABC sitcom based on Neil Simon’s original idea, starring Tony Randall as Felix Unger and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison, no doubt established the playwright’s household name beyond Broadway and the East Coast. But its interminable “setup/gag” formula distilled Simon’s rich wit and dialogue far from the source material. Today, few know “The Odd Couple” as the classic 1965 Broadway play that some consider the crown jewel in the playwright’s body of work.
The play has enjoyed several iterations since its premiere almost 50 years ago, including a version played by two women, “The Female Odd Couple,” and a reading with actors Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke. Pioneer Theatre Company will offer a new look at this seldom-seen production. It opens Friday, March 22, and is directed by the company’s artistic director, Karen Azenberg.
William Shakespeare gave us Hamlet and Horatio. Samuel Beckett offered up Vladimir and Estragon. But no other playwright beside Simon could throw two grown, soon-to-be divorced men together as roommates, then create scenarios in which they grow up all over again.
“Even though it’s funny, you feel that twist in the heart in certain points of dialogue that make you say, ‘I get it! I get it!’ ” La Mura said. “It’s played seriously, but for laughs, and the realizations come even in the laughs. [Oscar Madison] is the role I’ve been waiting many years to play.”
Jeff Talbott, who plays Felix Unger, concurs, saying the play is far richer than almost any informed theatergoer has the right to expect. Its standard reputation is the comedy that results when Felix the neat freak meets Oscar the slouch. The subtext, Talbott points out, is much deeper. Felix also is deeply neurotic, while Oscar is almost without direction as a person.
The play’s true achievement is that Simon makes so much happen in a play where three-fourths of the action takes place with just two guys onstage, Talbott said. That’s a skill Talbott, an award-winning playwright for his off-Broadway play “The Submission,” admires at an almost visceral level.
“What I hope I share with Simon is a great precision of language and dialogue,” Talbott said. “It’s the sort of play that if one word goes wrong, the train goes completely off the tracks. It’s very tightly structured.”
La Mura is a veteran of the stage and television soaps, and received an Emmy nomination as part of the cast of “All My Children.” He said Simon’s plays are built on the unique heartbeat of New York Yiddish rhythms and inflections of speech and verbal exchange. A shot at “The Odd Couple” presents a wonderful opportunity to throw iambic pentameter out the window.
“The card game at the top of the show is one of the funniest scenes I know — ever! — in theater,” La Mura said.
Talbott said Azenberg’s direction has proved invaluable, lending the production a steady, wise hand that knows exactly when to throw caution to the wind. Her father, New York theater producer and manager Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, worked professionally in the theater with Simon for more than 30 years.
“She literally has firsthand information about Simon’s style and what it means,” Talbott said. “She has such an immaculate ear for [Simon’s] dialogue. It’s so valuable, and so exciting. … No other regional theater could approach this classic play in quite the same [way], and with that kind of authority.”
‘The Odd Couple’
When • March 22-April 6. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East on University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $25-$44. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.