The show: "The Odd Couple," a presentation of Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Nutmeg Summer Series at the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs.
First impressions: Many thousands of years ago — OK, maybe not that long ago — there was something called "the straw hat circuit" of small theaters along the seashore and in the countryside (hence the name the Westport COUNTRY Playhouse), that offered vacationers escaping from the un-air-conditioned city mostly light theater fare of familiar titles, often with TV stars or even film and theater celebs who wanted to trod the boards in shows that didn't require any heavy lifting and for very limited runs (and usually with very limited rehearsal).
In the spirit of that theatrical tradition here's Pat Sajak, host of the immensely popular and long-running "Wheel of Fortune" game show who, with Joe Moore, an old actor buddy, stars in this familiar Neil Simon comedy for a warm-weather gig in rural Connecticut.
The duo does a respectable job of fulfilling these iconic character of neatnik Felix and slob Oscar, two recently divorced, alimony-strapped pals who share an apartment to cut costs.
They're good?: They're fine. No one is going to fast-track this production to Broadway but it fulfills the checklist of an entertaining summer show. Comic timing, check. Understanding of characters, check. Knowing where each laugh is, check. Solid supporting cast, check. Scenery stays upright, check.
Is he Felix or Pat?: To his credit, Sajak throws himself into the fuss-budget character convincingly whining, crying, fretting, and becoming hysterical (in the "panic" sense of the word — and to the point of turning red). He has a natural stage ease and any awkwardness is covered by the emotional state of his character. His TV person of nice-guy-but-a-bit-of-a-wisecracker is a good fit with playwright Simon's wisecracking dialogue. Sajak also brings likability to the role that is key to making the otherwise-annoying Felix appealing. (A "Method" actor would kill the comedy). Sajak also plays well with others.
Such as?: It is called the odd couple so without an equal presence on stage in the other lead role the show would not work quite as well. Sajak nicely shares the stage with Moore who lands the big reaction-centered laughs as the lovable lug. The actors' personal history as longtime buddies pays off well in their natural guy chemistry.
As the more outgoing character, Moore's Oscar really has to keep the show's comic energy up, especially in the early scenes when Felix arrives depressed soon after his wife has given him the heave-ho. Moore's Oscar is a well-measured force, a kind of exasperated Gleason to Sajak's clueless Carney. (By the way, Comnecticut's Art Carney originated the role of Felix on Broadway. The show pays a sweet homage to the man with Moore wearing a hat similar to that Carney wore as Ed Norton in "The Honeymooners."And Sajak and Moore have appeared together in a stage version of "The Honeymooners.")
Was Vanna there, too? As one of the Pigeon sisters? No. But offering twittering hilarity were Kathleen McNenny and Liz Larcen (so fine in Goodspeed's "The Most Happy Fella" which went on to Broadway in 1992). The poker playing buddy ensemble was also well cast with Patrick Kerr's Vinnie a standout.
Who will like it?: Neil Simon fans, those looking for light summer fare, poker players.
Who won't: Those who are overly familiar with the film, TV series and countless other community theater productions. More serious theater-goers.
For the kids?: There's nothing objectionable but they might put it in the "stuff my parents think is funny" category.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Pat Sajak and company bring back the easy going spirit of the straw-hat circuit in "Couple" comedy.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: It's odd how comic tastes have changed. The prolific Simon was a staple of Broadway for decades writing gag-filled comedies before trying his had at plays with a bit more emotional depth. Are we in an ironic age or a post-ironic age or a post-post ironic age? I'm not sure. But seeing the show again after many years, I didn't laugh out loud so much as I did savor the craft of comedy from another period — kind of as an American comic kabuki.
The basics: The show runs a little over two hours, including an intermission. The show runs through July 7. Information: 860-486-2113 and http://www.crt.uconn.edu.