Miami’s Mad Cat Theatre, which has just eased into its 15th anniversary year, is company that zigs where others zag. It’s a reflection of its intellectually curious founder-artistic director Paul Tei, and in recent years has been increasingly dedicated to boundary-pushing new work utilizing video and live music along with more traditional theatrical tools.
So more than a few minds were blown when Mad Cat announced its just-opened production, Neil Simon’s 1966 comedy The Star-Spangled Girl.
Umm, Neil Simon? The guy who wrote The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park and a zillion other well-constructed comedies? This hipster-edgy Miami company is doing one of Simon’s early, less successful plays?
You betcha. But of course, with Tei at the helm, Mad Cat’s Star-Spangled Girl is unlike any earlier production of the politically-tinged comedy.
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Now running in the SandBox at Miami Theater Center, the play is faithful to Simon’s dialogue, with one small exception that makes a big difference: Instead of being set in 1966, The Star-Spangled Girl now takes place in 2066. So dates that the characters mention are altered, and a word might be changed here or there, but the three-act play Simon wrote (yes, three acts with two intermissions) is what the audience hears. Yet this is not your mom’s or grandma’s Star-Spangled Girl.
Yes, the play still features roommates Norman (Noah Levine) and Andy (Theo Reyna) as the producers of a radical, anti-establishment magazine called Fallout, a periodical that Norman writes (under 14 different bylines) and Andy edits from their modest San Francisco apartment — necessarily modest because Fallout doesn’t make them enough money to pay the rent or the printer’s bills.
Their relationship and scraping-by financial situation is upended when an Olympic swimmer named Sophie moves in next door. Sophie (Jessica Farr) is a southern gal, one who’s rah-rah America and engaged to a military man. But there’s something exotic about her, and her scent quickly drives Norman gah-gah, so he goes from zero to stalker in the blink of an eye.
Sophie is where the production gets its Mad Cat on. Farr plays her as either an alien (of the interplanetary variety) or an android; in any case, she’s not of this world. Given her stiffened bent arms and robotic speech, I’m betting android, but Farr’s delivery is consistent and effective, so the choice works.
Levine and Reyna are a classic Simon comic duo.
Dressed by costume designer Karelle Levy in wacky, wildly colorful outfits that look like they’ve been stolen from a rooftop clothesline (as the script suggests), Levine is a wiry eccentric as Norman, as manic as a successfully functioning human being can be before medical intervention becomes a necessity.
Reyna’s Andy is Norman’s opposite, as Felix and Oscar were in The Odd Couple. The actor’s low-key, droll delivery makes him the ideal foil for Levine, and the two have the chemistry needed for The Star-Spangled Girl to work.
Tei is inventive in other ways, adding a musical duo dubbed The Space Heaters, with Stephen G. Anthony as the singer-guitarist and Brian Sayre on drums. Among their quirky picks: Love Is All Around, the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a 1970s sitcom about a different plucky gal in the big city. The band also gives the actors a chance to croon short solos, including Farr’s Blue Bayou, which becomes more an ode to a planet than a place.
Anthony also serves as the show’s sporadic narrator, reading stage directions that give a little more insight into the situation and characters.
Director Tei has chosen not to mess with Simon’s references to telephones and typewriters, nor with the presence of printed material, low prices and snail-mail in the play — all things that would seem highly improbable in 2066. And Simon, like his fellow playwrights, wrote ‘em long in 1966, so you may find yourself squirming in your narrow, hard seat well before the show ends around 10:30 p.m.
Still, The Star-Spangled Girl has enough sparkle and artistic swagger that the improbable Mad Cat gamble pays off.
If you go
What: ‘The Star-Spangled Girl’ by Neil Simon.
Where: Mad Cat production at Miami Theater Center’s SandBox, 9816 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, through Jan. 25.
Cost: $30 ($15 students).
Information: 866-811-4111 or www.madcattheatre.org.