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By John Quinn
It takes a leap of faith to open a theater company in tough economic times. Even critics are having trouble making ends meet – although there are artistic directors out there who disagree, holding strong opinions about in what ends our heads are tucked. But I digress. Right now it’s “ars gratia artis” because there’s no money to be made in the arts.
Enter super troupers Diane Hill and Barbie Amann Weisserman. Rather than merely moaning over the lack of meaty roles for women in our little neighborhood, they’re determined to change that by launching Two Muses Theatre. Their first production, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” is in residence in an unexpected location – the theater inside Barnes & Noble on Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield.
I approached this assignment with some trepidation. Switching the gender of theatrical characters is done from time to time, with few successes. Dialogue, motivation and psychology all seem out of place. Little did I know this wasn’t Neil Simon’s 1965 Broadway hit, but a 1985 re-write with custom-made women characters. All the possible disconnects are avoided, as Simon brings a sharp appreciation of the differences between the sexes. And, “vive la difference!” The “female version” is better than the original, if such a thing were possible. Even switching out the guys’ weekly poker game for evenings of Trivial Pursuit adds many a satisfying laugh.
One would think, given the popularity of the ’70s television series, that a plot synopsis is unnecessary. But for those of you who spent your formative years watching “Scooby Doo!” I’ll make it brief. Newly separated Florence Ungar (Diane Hill) moves into the apartment of her divorced friend, Olive Madison (Barbie Amann Weisserman). This is not a match made in heaven. Flo is a passive-aggressive, OCD-driven neat freak; Olive is a laid-back slob. It only takes a few weeks before nerves fray and tempers flare.
Besides playing Florence, Diane Hill also directs the show. By working with a co-director, Terie Spencer, Hill avoids the pitfall of being too close to the action to recognize the weaknesses – two heads really are better than one. The performances are smart, engaging and down-right fun. The ladies’ gaggle of friends include Nancy Cooper as Mickey the cop; Cheryl Glicker, Terie Spencer and Julie Yolles. Robert Hotchkiss and Alan Madlane play the Spanish Costazuela brothers, the male segment of a double date from hell. While well played, their extensive scene with Florence in which the three mangle English idioms is over-the-top, as if Simon had too much material but decided to cram it all in anyway.
Kicking a tire tells you nothing about a car’s condition, but a slamming door can tell you a lot about a theatrical set. Designer Bill Mandt’s doors close with a solid “thump” with nary a quiver to the walls. The interior decoration reflects Olive’s “design be damned” approach, a hodge-podge of furniture styles backed by clashing wall colors. The mix is wonderfully tacky and totally irredeemable by Flo’s Bed, Bath and Beyond make-over. Neither the set nor Weisserman’s costumes clearly define a time; rather, they are blends of several decades and give the play a sense of timelessness.
As a long-term goal, raising awareness of women in the arts is a noble cause. Short term, “The Odd Couple” is an amusing evening of entertainment. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.
‘The Odd Couple’
Two Muses Theatre at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, 6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield. Friday-Sunday through Nov. 27. $18. 248-850-9919. http://www.twomusestheatre.org