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Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

To be honest, I was dreading it.

Even though the Indio Performing Arts Center is the most comfortable theater in town (the angle of the rake for the audience area guarantees that every cushy seat gives perfect visibility; it has lots of leg room; and there are cup-holders like at the movies!), the ghastly fact is this: Neil Simon’s comedy The Odd Couple just doesn’t hold up in today’s world. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, his kooky characters and their navel-gazing were fresh, original and fun (despite their smoking, ewww). Frankly, I hadn’t realized how much comedy had changed with the times until we tried to watch reruns of Laugh-In a couple of years ago, and we all sat staring stone-faced and unamused instead of rolling on the floor and shrieking like we did back in the day. Many attempts to re-do Neil Simon’s work, some even with major stars, have bombed horribly in today’s world, because of those changes in comedy since this play opened in 1965.

But the Palm Desert Stage Company comes through!

Cozy in their new home at IPAC, Colleen Kelley’s troupe is directed by the uber-talented Jeanette Knight (one of the calmest directors you could ever work with) and gives us a delightful version of The Odd Couple that never wanes in its energy or quality. Did they tinker with the script? Who knows or cares? This production of the show works.

Of course, the first problem they faced was erasing the audience’s memories of the film version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, two genius comic actors with an enormous arsenal of techniques that made their movie unforgettable. But this production comes through, again, with their clever casting choices. Lou Galvan as Oscar Madison, and Matthew Shaker as Felix Ungar, look and behave nothing like Matthau and Lemon, and therein lies the secret of this success. Where Matthau was a slob and a sloth, Galvan is an intense mess who’s too high-energy to bother taking care of his surroundings (and a sports writer to add to the problem). Where Lemmon was an obsessive and whiny little wreck, Shaker is totally sympathetic as a just-dumped husband and father desperately trying to put his life in order by organizing the environment around him to hopefully stave off his falling apart within.

These two actors beautifully contrast each other. Their physical appearances, first of all—the result of clever casting—instantly put the “odd” in the title. But as actors, they go beyond that, to shrewdly create gestures and moves different from each other. Watch the way they use their eyes. Watch Shaker sniff. Watch Galvan throw a tantrum of frustration. Even though their relationship is at odds, they each create a perfect marriage of technique and method acting. Bravo!

Though it’s basically a two-person play, the fun is multiplied by the supporting actors. The poker players, from the start of the first scene, make us wish they had way more lines, because each performance here is fully imagined. Peter Mins, as the accountant Roy, is delightful as an observer of the human condition who has learned to keep his mouth shut. Vinnie, played by Charles Williams Gaines, is great as the guy who is everybody’s friend. Alan Berry plays Speed (a nickname which is never explained, alas), a bright light who is focused and serious about everything from poker to being a Manhattanite. And the ever-versatile and brilliant Ron Young is Murray the Cop, whose tough New York street-smarts contrast with his ham-fisted card -ealing and his insatiable appetite for comfort food.

But the girls! You can’t take your eyes off them, and not just because The Pigeon Sisters are so pretty and brightly dressed in contrast to the men. Debbie Apple as Cecily, and Colleen Kelley as Gwendolyn (names clearly stolen from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest) are delicious and fluttery and sweet and colorful; these two fine actresses could actually pass as sisters. They have worked hard on subtleties such as their head movements and their matching smiles. Of course, their similarity sharply contrasts the differences between Oscar and Felix. Their performances include an underlying layer of predatory yet breezy sexuality that makes them a little dangerous. Their British accents are perfect choices. We can’t get enough of them. If they appeared for the first time in today’s world, they’d have their own TV show immediately.

The set and costumes and props—all created by Colleen Kelley (with help from efficient Nick Cox and John Meyers)—give vague references to the ’60s, but without making the production “dated.” It’s a perfect balance to the acting styles, and the result is a comfortably universal feeling that doesn’t scream “period piece,” despite some excellent touches in the Madison apartment’s décor, like that clock.

Hard-working Colleen Kelley’s relentless promotion resulted in a truly packed house on Saturday, without a single seat left available. (Technically, this creates an interesting experience known as “polarization,” which causes the audience to react as one unit. It rarely happens in a scattered crowd. It’s what every producer of a comedy prays for, because each laugh’s timing and duration become identical, like a bullfight crowd’s “ole.”) This audience roared at the comedy—and Neil Simon held up just fine, thank heavens.

If you can get a ticket, you’ll be grateful. We’re already wondering if they will extend the run so everyone can get to see this play at IPAC, and maybe finally overcome their strange doubts about theater in Indio. It’s a showplace to love arguably Neil Simon’s best work ever, and a totally enjoyable experience as presented here. Just see it.

The Odd Couple, a presentation of Palm Desert Stage, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday. Nov. 23, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $28, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

The spirit of Christmas, so pathetically diluted by crass commercialism, is alive and well at IPAC.

Colleen Kelley has brought her Palm Desert Stage Company’s holiday show to a new home in Indio, and on opening night, the house was packed with lively supporters. We can only hope that It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, will become an annual treat. It’s a family-friendly play within a play, so grab your nieces and nephews—even the grandparents, if they’re still around—and don’t miss it.

The Indio Performing Arts Center—a gorgeous gem that contains three boutique-style theaters (one with a screen, for movies) plus a huge central multipurpose area—is an excellent choice for Kelley’s show. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, no matter how big the heads or hats are in front of you, due to wonderfully raked rows looking down onto a beautiful proscenium stage; the chairs are the most comfortable in town. For this show, the set has been fluffed with poinsettias and a stalwart glowing Christmas tree (designed by John Meyers and Colleen Kelley). The open stage reveals the friendly clutter of a radio station’s broadcast studio, with the call letters “WBFR” aloft.

Stations’ call letters beginning with “W” designate radio stations located east of the Mississippi; all those west of the river start with a “K.” So we know this broadcast takes place in the east, and it is soon revealed that the location is “Bedford Falls.” (WBFR, get it?) Kelley is known for her attention to detail in sets, props and effects, and she must have loved creating a setting like this, with framed, autographed headshots of actors on the walls; microphones with perky Xmas decorations; and a mysterious jumble of sound-effect tools.

Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the Jimmy Stewart movie? Whether or not you have, it won’t ruin this show for you, because there’s a totally different approach. Here, we watch the actors do the show, broadcast live, just like they used to Back In The Day. Nowadays, there’s hardly anyone around who actually attended a live radio drama broadcast, but today at IPAC, you get to be swept back in time and become the actual participating audience—APPLAUSE sign and all.

What a thrill; opening-night playgoers shimmered with anticipation, probably just like they did in the old days. Technical director Nick Cox sits high at the back of the theater, serene and confident in his booth. The actors enter and mingle briefly with the audience. Dan Graff, playing sound-effects guy Jimmie Jeffries, reports to his station and fiddles with his arcane doodads. Steve Lyon plays the fictitious actor Jake Laurents, who gives us the voice of our hero George Bailey—already in character with his square jaw squared and big smile. Jeanette O’Neill, playing actress Lana Sherwood (sure that was her real name) floats around being gracious and diva-charming. Peter Mins, playing Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, fusses and dithers enchantingly, his extraordinary eyes flashing. And Colleen Kelley, as actress Sally Applewhite, sweeps in to impress us with her friendly style and gorgeous blonde beauty. Ron Young, playing The Narrator, ever so handsome in a snazzy vintage suit and with an authentic hairstyle, steps up to the mic and counts us down in a radio-perfect, resonant voice.

You think you know what’s going to happen next? IPAC doesn’t provide seat belts; otherwise, I would suggest buckling up.

These few actors play multiple roles; Young leads the list with 11. But remember—This is radio! The listeners can’t see the stage like we can—it’s all done with voices. These astonishing actors morph in microseconds to play a little kid, an angel, an aged grump, a heavily-accented immigrant, a vamp, a tough cop, a crying baby—whatever is required by the script. And always with perfect diction!

You’ll be floored. This kind of acting, where mistakes and re-takes and edits are not a possibility, barely exists any more: It had to be right the first time. Plus, being in character … and being distinctive … with the proper emotion? It’s almost too much to expect from today’s talents—but they did it back in those early radio days, as Garrison Keillor explained, because nobody told them they couldn’t!

Co-directors Kelley and O’Neill show what can happen when actors also direct. The only choice I would question is that the actors here are frequently off-script—and I wonder if radio actors would have had sufficient rehearsal time, back then, to achieve this. It plays better, of course, but is it real?

The prodigious and astonishing skills of these actors lead to the success of this play. The adorable Dan Graff (wait until you see him in high heels) as the sound-effects man, with his ingenious creation of sounds, adds comic relief to Joe Landry’s unforgettably dramatic script. But bring a hanky! The play’s message is summarized in the title, and despite what we see as dated, and maybe even corny sometimes, the thought still rings true today.

Admit it: Even in 2013, it is a wonderful life.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a production of the Palm Desert Stage Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors and friends of IPAC; $15 students; and $11 children. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

Published in Theater and Dance