“A God-send” is how Dublin-based actress, Gene Rooney, describes the Everyman’s production of the female version of The odd Couple.
This Neil Simon comedy continues at the theatre until August 17. It amounts to nine weeks of work for the cast of eight, including four weeks of rehearsals.
Gene, 47, originally from Limerick, says she hasn’t had nine weeks of work in a row since 2004. She plays Vera, the slightly spacey and naive friend of The Odd Couple, Olive and Florence.
“It’s like the good old days when actors had their summer season,” she says.
Gene praises artistic director of the Everyman, Julie Kelleher, for being such a strong advocate of women in theatre.
“She’s a huge champion of WakingTheFeminists. She is this amazing figure in Irish theatre, curating brilliant work and respecting actors and the work. It’s just so full of joy to be around her.
“Theatre is a very tough business and the joy is taken out of it for a lot of people. It can make people cynical because it’s such a hard road.”
The Odd Couple is set during a warm New York summer in an apartment on the Upper West Side. The laid back Olive, played by Gillian McCarthy, is hosting ‘the girls’ for their weekly game of Trivial Pursuit when her highly strung friend, Florence, played by Nichola MacEvilly, freshly separated from her husband and with nowhere to go, arrives.
Worried about Florence’s state of mind, Olive invites her to move in as her room-mate. But the two women are very different. Olive’s easy going approach to life clashes with Florence’s neurotic tendencies, testing their friendship to the limit.
The game of Trivial Pursuit, is, says Gene, “a catalyst for bringing all the women in the show together. But it becomes low priority. In the original version of The Odd Couple, the characters played poker. Why Neil Simon didn’t have the women playing poker, I don’t know, especially because he wrote brilliant parts for women. This version of the play was written in 1985, a time when Trivial Pursuit was a big deal.”
A comic high in The Odd Couple occurs when Olive organises a double date with the Costazuela brothers, played by Ray Scannell and Kevin Creedon.
“The boys are supposed to be Spanish so there’s a combination of language and cultural confusion. It’s a brilliant scene.”
To get into the mood of Neil Simon’s play (which was made into a film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and also a TV show), Gene has been doing a lot of reading about New York. She has treasured memories of the Big Apple, having visited it when she was aged ten and thirteen.
“I was staying over the bridge in New Jersey with an aunt. When we look at photographs as points of reference for the play, I realised they’re the same as the photos I was taking when I was in New York. I have very clear memories of the city. I remember the career girls going to work in runners. I know this sounds mad but going to New York in 1982 and 1985 was, for me, like going to the moon. I had a very happy childhood but Ireland back then was a pretty grey country. So going to New York was a thrill.”
Gene even brought an empty suitcase with her so that she could fill it with the kind of fashion that was being worn on Fame, the American TV series about a school for the performing arts.
“I brought back leg warmers, wrap around skirts, headbands. Everything in the shops in New York was inspired by Fame. It was so exotic.”
Gene started out studying languages at Trinity College Dublin, before becoming ill for a couple of years with a hereditary liver condition. She finally decided to follow her passion, with the encouragement of her parents. She was accepted into the Gaiety School of acting and now, does some teaching and improvisation classes there, to tide her over the lean periods in the acting world.
Comedy is Gene’s metier. But she has noticed that there’s a perception that comedy is not “true craft”.
Gene cites Neil Simon as “brilliant. He wrote gags every three lines. He was a genius. He has a particular rhythm in his writing too.”
Noni Stapleton, 44, plays Mickey, a female cop in The Odd Couple, a play that spans a three week period. Born in the Bon Secours in Cork, Noni was reared in different parts of the country as her father’s job in the army meant the family moved around a lot. Her mother’s family is from Fermoy. Like Gene, Noni is a big fan of Neil Simon.
“The script for this play is like a musical score.”
Noni’s character is “in cop mode all the time. She’s very much defined by that role. It remains to be seen whether or not she’s effective as a cop. Like the other friends of Olive and Florence, she plays Trivial Pursuit. She’s also a bit of a driving force. In one scene, she tries to manage a situation that unfolds. Mickey senses that something is going on and feels that something bad has happened to Florence. Nobody knows where she is.
“Mickey is thinking along the lines of Florence being doomed because New York is a scary city. It would have been quite scary in the ’80s.”
While Noni always felt that she was going to be an actress, she kept quiet about it. She studied philosophy at UCD and went to the university’s drama society where she auditioned for a play.
“I hated it. I was so intimidated. I didn’t go back once for the four years I was at college. After my philosophy degree, which qualified me to work in a hat shop in Temple Bar, I saw a poster advertising an actors’ workshops at the Black Box theatre company. I did the workshops and a few weeks later, the company rang me saying they needed an ASM (assistant stage manager.) I said I’d do it even though I didn’t know what an ASM was.”
Noni studied acting at the Gaiety School of Acting. “I came out of there feeling like an actor.”
But, like Gene, she has had lean periods.
“So to get the call from the Everyman and the director of The Odd Couple, Conor Hanratty was an outright honour.”
In 2012, Noni worked in New York in a production of Christian O’Reilly’s The Good Father.
“It was another one of those weird things. There was no reason why anybody should be ringing me up from New York to give me a job. I said I’d love to do it. I had an absolute ball, a charmed time. I was 37 at the time. I was really tempted to stay on in New York. I moved mountains to try and stay there. But I was not meant to move there. I know that now but I was devastated at the time that the doors wouldn’t open for me. I couldn’t get a visa.
“But I ended up getting cast in a TV series, Penny Dreadful, that I wouldn’t have got to do if I had stayed in America.”
Some of this American-British series was filmed here.
Noni is philosophical about her life.
“I’m 44. I have a lovely man in my life who I wouldn’t have met if I was living in New York. New York is fabulous. I love to visit it. But it’s a hard city.”
Now, thanks to the Everyman, Noni can imagine she’s in New York every night. Not a bad deal for a working actress.
The Odd Couple runs nightly at 7.30pm (except Sundays and Mondays). See www.everymancork.com