The story of how people with disparate personalities learn to manage each other is by now so hackneyed it's almost a wonder any playwright or screenwriter even bothers.
Netflix queues and DVD shelves are littered with dramas about warring couples and testy police officers assigned to the same case. But give credit where credit is due. Neil Simon may not have invented the drama of the annoying roommate, but he certainly gave us a shining template in his 1965 Broadway hit "The Odd Couple."
Without Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar hurling insults over a plate of linguini or battling it out with a can of aerosol, we might never have had the chance to laugh at future pairings such as Neal Page and Del Griffith in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." And the world would be poorer for it.
Pioneer Theatre Company's Artistic Director Karen Azenberg, who directs its production, comes equipped with all the tools to do "The Odd Couple" even justice. Her credentials as a New York City theater professional aside, her father, Emanuel Azenberg, worked alongside Simon for decades, producing many of his plays.
Imagine yourself as a young composer or musician, your father working years with George Gershwin. You get the idea.
Expectations run high, then, the second we cast our gaze on Pioneer Theatre Company's eye-popping set, meticulous right down to the faux-baroque stereo cabinet with mesh-cloth speakers. The time machine, it seems, is obsolete compared with the talents of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt.
The cast is similarly impressive and attuned to the play's early 1960s milieu. The opening scene of a card game between Oscar Madison and his cabal of kvetching, yammering buddies reeks of beleaguered male camaraderie in the best possible way, popping and crackling along to Simon's wonderful dialogue. Oscar's divorce, a prelude to the troubles that will bring Felix Ungar under his wing, is more of a creative disaster to be managed than a personal shortfall to bewail.
"I'm 800 dollars behind on my alimony," Oscar, played earthy and gritty by Mark La Mura, tells his friends. "Let's up the stakes!"
The gnawing gusto and rhythmic energy of Simon's wry humor, built largely on conversational tangents, churns merrily along from there. La Mura's Oscar is so thoroughly portrayed it's easy to feel you're an eavesdropper inside his disaster-strewn apartment.
The speed bumps hit, as they should, with the arrival of wan, simpering Felix, played by Jeff Talbott. It's hard to judge whether Talbott's sometimes astringent version of Felix overdoes the character by half, or does it just enough justice so that we, too, see him through Oscar's weary, had-it-up-to-here eyes.
"You make the same sound for pain or happiness!" Oscar tells Felix early on.
The comic nerve of Oscar and Felix's bickering hits its high point, as does the production, with the arrival of the Pigeon sisters, Cecily and Gwendolyn, played by Helen Anker and Amy Bodnar, respectively. Watching all four characters negotiate the boundaries of their collective first date, complete with nervous giggling over a burnt cut of meat and Felix's endearing despair over his own divorce, is theater bliss.
There's no denying the aged quality of much of Simon's humor, and the pretext of Oscar's guilty conscience at Felix's fate by play's end feels all too forced and not nearly convincing in our age of ruthless irony and cynicism. The arc of Simon's script feels in the end more a collection of riotous set pieces than an interlocking whole.
But it's all great fun, and a heartfelt reminder of how chance and necessity reveal the best in people we may not get along with, but learn to care about all the same. Life is odd that way.
'The Odd Couple'
When • March 22-April 6. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $25-$44. Call 801-581-6961 or visit http://www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.
Bottom line • A more-than-agile production showcasing the full spectrum of Simon's signature humor, from broad to narrow. But given a script that reads more like a series of set pieces, don't expect profundity. Two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.