Part of the fun of doing the female version of Neil Simon’s classic “The Odd Couple,” say Gina Austin and Karla Burns, is that they have been personal friends and fellow cast mates on local stages for nearly 40 years.
“We already had a Felix/Oscar thing going with our card games,” says Austin of their mutual interest in Spades and, lately, tournament-quality bridge. “We have a rapport, a sort of a shorthand (in communication) after performing everywhere from Music Theatre to the Marple Theater.”
“We taught each other things over the years,” says Burns, a Wichita native who made it to Broadway and won an Olivier Award in London before returning home a decade ago. “I’ve known Gina since she started teaching at West High after I had already graduated. I taught her about voice stuff, and she taught me about cards.”
The two are teaming up for the Forum Theatre’s revival of “The Odd Couple – Female Version,” Neil Simon’s 1985 rewrite for women of his 1965 comedy classic that inspired a successful 1968 movie and a popular 1970-75 TV sitcom that was the “Modern Family” of its era.
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Austin, compelling in the Forum’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” plays Florence Ungar (the Felix role done by Art Carney on Broadway, Jack Lemmon in the movie and Tony Randall on TV), a compulsive neatnik who is thrown out by her husband and seeks temporary shelter with her best friend, Olive.
Burns, a powerhouse in Forum’s “Hello, Dolly,” plays that friend (the Oscar role done by Walter Matthau for Broadway and the movie and Jack Klugman on TV), a happy-go-lucky slob who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, like keeping a pristine home or keeping track of every miniscule nicety.
Instead of playing poker, the two host a weekly game of Trivial Pursuit attended by old pals Liz Dary, Deb Campbell, Sierra Scott and Rebecca Barnett. Ray Wills and Huron Breaux play the crazy Costazuela brothers (i.e. the Pigeon sisters), who live upstairs and complicate their romantic lives.
“We wanted to do something light and funny for the summer, and we had just the right people with Gina and Karla, who are longtime friends and an unlikely couple,” says director Kathryn Page Hauptman. “The fun part for me as director is Neil Simon’s witty dialogue. It’s not really dated, although some (cultural) references have been updated, because the relationships are so very human and universal.”
While the show is meant to be pure entertainment – and the annual fundraiser for the theater – Hauptman says it does have a message about friendship.
“There’s a line that says it’s ‘better to be liked than needed’ where the two find mutual respect and bonding even thought they are so different,” Hauptman says.
Austin, who plays persnickety Florence, describes her character as “obsessive and compulsive, extremely neat, organized and precise.”
“I can really relate to some of that because, as a teacher, I like to think I’m organized. But this gives me a chance to be flamboyant with it,” Austin says with a laugh.
For Burns, messy Olive is “more of a hoarder than I am, although some friends might disagree.”
“Olive is comfortable with herself. She knows herself. She’s strong-willed and independent. She loves sports and is competitive. She’s a good person who has a good heart. But she’s a person who definitely needs maid service because cleaning up is not one of her priorities,” Burns says. “What’s most fun about playing her is her sense of freedom to be herself.”