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I doubt I could stand either Oscar Madison or Felix Ungar as a roommate.

Oscar's an oaf trailing cigar ashes and moldy sandwiches in his wake (his refrigerator must look like a horror movie). Felix is an anal-retentive control freak for whom nothing's ever clean enough. Rooming with either would turn you into the other.

But what a great idea for a comedy! Take an undependable, irresponsible slob, match him with the consummate neurotic, and let the laughs fly.

(As odd, in its own way, each is a highly successful writer: Oscar writes sports and can afford an eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive; Felix writes the news for CBS).

They say Neil Simon got the idea from real life. His brother Danny played poker on Friday nights. One time a regular didn't show. He left his wife - or, more likely, she dumped him. When he finally arrived, he took over, ruled the roost, and drove everyone goofy.

Simon's early plays got tabbed as lightweight laugh machines. They also favor the status quo. The underlying message: do not venture out, do not explore; stay home (his later, more "serious" works are about breaking away). What few noticed at the time, and what keeps plays like Odd Couple going: Simon is a craftsman, right up there with the Kaufmans and the Harts. Simon's jokes often come in threes, the third always the funniest. You can trust scenes to do their work (he regularly complained about productions that tried to embellish his texts, which have stopwatch timing).

North Coast Rep's staging gets the jokes but under Andrew Barnicle's direction, the actors don't play for laughs (they even missed possibilities the night I caught the show). Instead they give the script a credible bass-line by grounding it in real things.

When Felix (Louis Lotorto) comes on stage late in Act one, he isn't just funny-hurt; he's aching. When Oscar (Matt Thompson) and Felix discuss being suddenly single, they don't crack-wise. They share and inquire.

The jokes are there, in droves, but the production's more interested in the pairing of a most unlikely couple.

Lotorto and Thompson do fine tandem work. Thompson's well-meaning but crude, and let's things slide; Lotorto's now, right now, urgent, and melodramatic. They move at different speeds with precise timing.

Cigar-chomping Bernie Kopsho heads the quartet of poker players (John Nutten, Cris O'Bryon, Albert Park), even on a farcical chase around Marty Burnett's now-grungy/now immaculate set.

Simon once confessed the only time he listened to a critic was during the tryout of Odd Couple. The ending was missing something. The critic (unnamed) said why not bring back those wonderful Pigeon sisters? Simon did. Problem solved.

Amanda Schaar and Callie Prendiville are terrific as the British women who, as Cyndi Lauper sang, "just wanna have fu-un."


North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, playing through May 12.

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