As the lights rise on the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's presentation of The Odd Couple, neither Oscar Madison nor Felix Ungar is on stage, though it's clear from the trash-strewn décor that we're in Oscar's living room. Four of the duo's pals are in the midst of their weekly poker game, and eventually one of them calls out to the off-stage kitchen, asking Oscar if he's in or out. Oscar replies, yet before we see him, his voice - moderately high-pitched and a little strangled, and with distinct East Coast cadences - is unmistakable. Oh my God!, you think. Steve Buscemi!
It's not, of course; it's actually actor Greg O'Neill (though his vocal resemblance to Buscemi is so uncanny that if you kept your eyes closed, you might be fooled). Yet it's not just O'Neill's character voice that's unexpected in this role made famous by Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman - everything about the actor, here, is surprising. Young, good-looking, and exuding an air of slovenly relaxedness that contrasts with the sharp comic intensity of his deliveries, he's absolutely no one's idea of a traditional Oscar Madison. He's also the absolute best reason to attend Harrison Hilltop's The Odd Couple.
By now, most of us are familiar (perhaps overly familiar) with playwright Neil Simon's creation, and the minor miracle of O'Neill's portrayal is that he transcends the Oscar Madison "type" we're accustomed to; suddenly, this role feels alive and specific in ways that seem brand-new. So does the show. In director Chris Walljasper's take on Simon's comedy, you can either willfully ignore everything you already know about it, or recognize just how thoroughly O'Neill, Don Hazen (an equally unconventional Felix), and the production itself upend - and, in my opinion, improve upon - Simon's work. I highly recommend the latter.
There are things you expect from an Oscar Madison, but one thing you don't expect is subtlety, and after his voice and presence, the first thing to likely catch your attention is O'Neill's understatement. Within his first seconds onstage, Oscar topples a drink, and promptly grabs a shirt to mop up the spill. The joke, of course, is that Oscar is such a slob that he uses clothing as a sponge, yet so little attention is paid to the moment that it transcends jokiness - it's just what Oscar does. By accepting the character's grossness as no big deal, O'Neill and his director shake off much of Oscar's obviousness; the verbal and visual references to his lack of couth, which are usually thuddingly blatant, are mere observations here - messiness is just a part of Oscar's total character.
This is a more human Oscar than we're used to seeing, and, given O'Neill's spectacular deliveries, than we're used to hearing. There are lovely, funny readings by Michael Miller, John Donald O'Shea, Adam Overberg, and the spirited J.W. Hertner - the chameleonic performer's cop Murray is a dead ringer for David Arquette's Deputy Dewey in the Scream movies - but O'Neill lends an unpredictable spin to his every line of dialogue, sometimes by stressing a word with so much force that it explodes, sometimes by swallowing punchlines to reveal their deeper comic intent. (On Thursday, his most offhandedly hilarious bit came when Felix announced he was going to the bathroom, and Oscar, fearing a suicide attempt, muttered a plaintive, "Alone?")
Unanticipated depth is also the key to Hazen's Felix, although, as with O'Neill, the first thing you notice is how prototypically wrong he is for his role. A big teddy bear of a man with a tranquil disposition, Hazen appears neither high-strung nor particularly fastidious, and some of Simon's conceits - such as Felix's attacks of neck and back pain, his weepiness, and his anxiety when left alone with Molly McLaughlin's and Alaina Pascarella's Pigeon sisters - simply don't work with his casting.
Hazen, however, brings something to the role that even Jack Lemmon and Tony Randall didn't: gravitas. The sitcom-iness of The Odd Couple tends to eclipse the point that Felix's and Oscar's living situation stems from a place of real pain - that Felix was not just heartbroken but blindsided when his wife tossed him to the curb. In Hazen's interpretation, though, that pain is always felt, and you begin to understand Felix's relentless tidying not as a personality quirk, a joke, but as his way of maintaining order in a life that's frequently without order. (We're no longer chuckling at Felix.) Hazen is a shrewd comedian who gets his laughs, but they're appreciative, heartfelt ones, and Felix's and Oscar's relationship, as it progresses, grows legitimately moving.
If all this makes the production sound less than riotous, that's because it is. It's also more. Simon's wisecracks, for better or worse, are intact (though oftentimes intentionally thrown away), and Walljasper delivers some topnotch slapstick, lending impeccable timing to the poker players' misguided intervention with Felix, and Felix's act-ending clean-up of Oscar's apartment. But with the theatre's latest, Harrison Hilltop provides something even better, and rarer, than a funny Odd Couple - a fascinating one.
For tickets, (309) 235-1654.