An odd connection to Neil Simon in Pioneer Theatre Company's "The Odd Couple"

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

In 1962, construction was completed on Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

In 1965, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” opened on Broadway.

In the following almost 50 years, the two have never crossed paths — until now.

“PTC had never done it — never. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked,” said new artistic director Karen Azenberg, who also directs the Neil Simon classic.

“And while it’s not Simon’s first play, it’s an earlier play so there was something sort of sentimental about the beginning of his career and the beginning of my tenure here,” she said.

Azenberg’s sentimentality goes beyond a love of the prolific writer and his work — receiving more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.

“Neil Simon’s plays were around our lives all the time,” she said. “We saw them all in their various stages, we heard about the plays before they were finished. It was very much a part of my growing up.”

Azenberg’s dad is long-time Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg. His career spans across 40 years, working on shows such as “The Wiz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “RENT,” “Movin’ Out,” and a 30+ year working relationship with Simon.

“It was just my dad’s job,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that this was very special and unusual or different until high school, really. I never realized that every kid didn’t go hang out at a theater on Saturday afternoon.”

The opportunity to work with someone personally connected to the playwright is not lost on Jeff Talbott, in town to play the fastidious Felix Unger. “When you’re doing a production of a play that’s been around for as long as this play’s been around, you’re often dealing with a watered-down version of what the play wants to be,” he said before rehearsal. “It’s a rare opportunity to work with someone who actually knows the real intent of the play.”

That insight has certainly been prominent in the rehearsal room. “We’re so culturized to Neil Simon’s writing. In a way, we write him off as ‘his plays are funny and everybody loves them.’ But they’re linguistically difficult,” he said. “Karen has such a great ear and such an intimate understanding of how the dialogue should sound and it’s invaluable.”

“The Odd Couple” opened on Broadway 48 years ago, and after its numerous incarnations, most people are familiar with it as a sloppy roommate and a neat-freak. “There’s so much more to it, there is a very sweet play at the center of ‘The Odd Couple,’” Talbott said. “It’s not just about trying to make it funny — which it is — it’s about trying to recognize the playwright’s voice.”

“We think of ‘The Odd Couple’ as comedy, comedy, comedy,” Azenberg said. “He’s [Simon] able to let us feel a little emotion, a little sensitivity and then deflect with humor. Which is, of course, what we all do — people do that.”

“I think we either recognize ourselves or somebody we know in the characters — and there’s a level of comfort in that,” she said. “The play is pretty flawless.”

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