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Female ‘Odd Couple’ opens at the Morris

Observer Scene | Friday, October 1, 2004

Stars of both the stage and screen come to the Morris Performing Arts Center this weekend in a revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” which debuts with a few new twists. The most notable change in the revised edition is the replacement of the two male roles, Felix and Oscar, with two female characters, Florence and Olive. The role of Olive is played by Rita McKenzie, whom audience members will remember best from roles on such popular television sitcoms as, “Caroline in the City” and “Frasier”. Barbara Eden, the international star of the hit television program, “I Dream of Jeannie,” plays the character of Florence.”It’s a lot of fun, a wonderful, wonderful piece of work,” said Eden of the classic story of two roommates with extremely different living habits. While Florence tends to be a neat freak around the house, Olive remains slightly more unkempt and lackadaisical in regards to housekeeping. Eden agrees her real life living habits mirror those of Florence. “My sock drawer is very neat,” she said.It is fitting that Eden, an actor who has added variety to her career with numerous television and stage roles, would take a lead role in a work with an equally varied history. The original version of, “The Odd Couple” debuted on Broadway on March 10, 1965, and ran for close to 1,000 performances. Walter Matthau, who originally played Oscar in the Broadway production went on to star with Jack Lemmon, 25 years before they gained Gen-X fame together in “Grumpy Old Men,” in the film version of the Neil Simon play. Two years later the success of both the play and the film led to the creation of a television series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman which enjoyed equal success from 1970-75. Ten years after the finale of “The Odd Couple” television series, Simon sat down and revised his popular work by switching the male characters with female ones. Many of the classic lines and jokes remain the same, but many new ones are added that appeal to a female audience. Eden noted the changes are, “many, especially the card game. They don’t play bridge, they play Trivial Pursuit.” Another revision is the changing of the Pigeon Sisters characters that live upstairs from Oscar and Felix. Those two have now become the Costazuela brothers, played by David Castro (“Days of our Lives”) and Larry Thomas, most famous for his role as “The Soup Nazi” in the classic “Seinfeld” episode. The production also features Elizabeth Alley, Allyce Beasley, Mary Pat Gleason and Shirley Prestia.As Notre Dame students from any dorm can agree on, roommate difficulties can exist regardless of gender. “As far as the relationships, they’re very much like (the original male characters), getting on each others nerves, having completely different personalities and living habits,” Eden said. Sally Struthers, famous for her similar misadventures in family living during her time on the television series, “All in the Family,” was the first actor to play Olive in 1985 when Simon debuted the revised “Odd Couple.” Eden recalled Struthers advising her when she signed onto the roll. “She said, ‘Have as much fun as I did.'”Eden’s career is marked by several famous stage and screen roles, the most famous being Jeannie in the smash television series, “I Dream of Jeannie.” The show, focusing around a NASA astronaut (Larry Hagman) and his relationship with his own personal 2015-year-old genie enjoyed a five-year run from 1965-70. Eden also returned to the role of Jeannie in 1985 and 1991 for two reunion specials. After, “I Dream of Jeannie,” Eden went on to star in both the film and television versions of “Harper Valley PTA,” the 1987 sequel to “The Stepford Wives,” and had a brief stint on the television drama, “Dallas,” to name a few of the over 50 roles on her resume.One of Eden’s most fulfilling activities, however, is to help those in need. For years, she has donated her time and celebrity to such causes as The American Cancer Society, The Wellness Community, The March of Dimes, The American Heart Association and Save the Children. “I’m lucky that I’m able to,” Eden said. “It’s fulfilling, and I get something out of it too.” One of Eden’s fondest memories in her career was helping to entertain the troops with Bob Hope during the Persian Gulf War. “It was thrilling… absolutely wonderful,” she said.Backed by big stars and a fun, fresh script, the revival of “The Odd Couple” will draw both fans of Eden and the original television series, as well as contemporary fans of such female-oriented shows as “Sex and the City.” Performances are tonight and Saturday night at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday evening at 7:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$55 and can be purchased through the Morris Performing Arts Center Box Office.