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'The Odd Couple' starts this weekend at OCT

Oregon Cabaret Theatre will launch its first production since the pandemic began, “The Odd Couple,” perhaps the best-known work by New York wordsmith Neil Simon.

“The Odd Couple” is a seminal play in the stage comedy pantheon about a mismatched pair of roommates — Felix Ungar, a neat freak to the point of obsession, and Oscar Madison, a slovenly but lovable divorced sports writer.

The show will open at OCT with Stephen Kline as Felix and Rick Robinson as Oscar. The production will also feature a cast of Oregon Cabaret veterans, including Alex Boyles, Mia Gaskin, Austin Robert Miller and Lauren Blair. Associate Artistic Director Galloway Stevens directs.

“The Odd Couple” premiered on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre in 1965 before moving to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre for nearly 1,000 performances over the next two years. It remains among Simon’s most successful plays, although he struggled to write it and found himself unable to assemble a third act, working feverishly in the final 48 hours to produce an ending before the play went to preview in Delaware and Boston.

His actors, led by Walter Matthau, revolted against having to learn the new act so quickly, but were persuaded by Simon’s friend and theatrical collaborator Mike Nichols to give it a try. Despite the hasty reboot in rehearsal, the play was a huge hit and went on to become both a major motion picture in 1968, which featured Jack Lemmon as Ungar and Matthau as Madison, and as a television sitcom in the 1970s with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Matthau had also played Madison in the original Broadway production with Art Carney (a longtime film, stage and television actor perhaps best known as the slow-witted but lovable Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners”) and was the actor most often associated with the project over several decades.

Simon, never one to miss an opportunity to cash in on his more popular plays, even went so far as to write and stage a female version of the play in 1985. There was a made-for-television cartoon controlled by Simon called “The Oddball Couple” that was based on the play, featuring a fastidious cartoon cat and a sloppy animated dog, as well as a 1980s television sitcom on ABC titled “The New Odd Couple.”

In 2015, when Simon was 88 years old, a multi-camera sitcom called “The Odd Couple” debuted on CBS television featuring “Friends” alum Matthew Perry as Felix. The show lasted for three seasons.

The original play continues to be a favorite of regional theaters some 55 years after it appeared. Simon died in August of last year in New York City of kidney failure at the age of 91. His other plays and films include “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Sweet Charity” and “The Goodbye Girl.”

Oregon Cabaret Theatre is adhering to strict guidelines for its reopening. The Cabaret will ensure that all patrons are 12 feet from the stage as well as six feet from each other for the duration of the show. Audience members will be required to wear masks while actors are performing, although OCT actors have received special permission from the state not to wear protective gear.

“The Odd Couple” by Neil Simon will run from July 16 to Sept. 6.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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