Does anybody out there remember a short-lived sitcom from the 1990s called Hi Honey, I’m Home? Conceptually intriguing, if a bit beneath top-shelf quality (it was taped in Florida), it concerned a family from a 1950s TV show that was relocated to a neighborhood where every character from every long-ago cancelled classic (Leave It To Beaver, Green Acres, et al) was apparently forced to make his/her way in a brave new “real world” of gelled mullets.
Sometimes we get the impression that Billy Van Zandt would very much enjoy living in such a place, if he hasn’t bought himself a little crash pad there already. In the course of a long-playing career as an actor, playwright, director, and (especially) an Emmy-nommed scriptwriter and producer of sitcoms both legendary (Newhart) and look-it-up (Bless This House), the male half of the Van Zandt-Milmore writing partnership has worked with the likes of Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, John Goodman, Richard Lewis, Martin Lawrence, Brooke Shields and the Wayans Brothers, to name but a few. He even married into a sitcom pedigree — Adrienne Barbeau, who among many other things was the daughter of Maude.
If such a magical neighborhood does exist in the here and now, it might offer sci-fi Stargate access directly into Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre — the beleaguered LBI landmark that, under the stewardship of new Artistic Director Roy Miller, has upped the ante on the TV Land factor for the 2011 summer season — an interlude during which the Surflight stage has been walked upon by everyone from American Idol Justin Guarini and Taxi‘s Judd Hirsch, to Gilligan girl Dawn Wells, Hollywood square Peter Marshall, Food Network’s Marc Summers and Law & Order: SVU‘s Richard Belzer. There’s even talk of an upcoming project starring Eve Plumb of the Brady Bunch.
Beginning this week, it all converges in one wacky inter-dimensional wormhole, as Van Zandt directs Cindy Williams — the woman who put the Shirley in Laverne & Shirley — and Jo Anne Worley, the psychedelic diva from the 1960s signifier Laugh-In, in a new look at a familiar Odd Couple.
We’re talking of course about Neil Simon‘s 1980s “Female Version” rewrite of the comic chestnut — a scenario in which messy “Olive” Madison takes in her just-separated neatnik friend “Florence” Ungar, as the Trivial Pursuit games continue in lieu of the original’s poker tourneys. It’s a property that’s naturally attracted many of the most seasoned “comediennes” in the business, and the Surflight stand (which runs August 4 to 21) boasts still more picture-tube talents in the supporting cast — including June Gable (Joey’s agent on Friends!) and Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and Charlie’s mom on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!). It’s like you ate a half gallon of Ben & Jerry’s Welsh Rarebit Cathode Crunch, passed out on a bongwater-stained Peg Bundy sofa to late-nite reruns of phantom-channel transmissions bounced back from the Crab Nebula, and slipped into an endless Rod Serling/Jean-Paul Sartre loop of two-dimensional existentialist hijinx from which escape is not only impossible — it’s hilariously unnecessary!
We caught up with Billy Van Zandt between two worlds — his rehearsals on Long Beach Island, and his ongoing commitment to the Van Zandt-Milmore show You’ve Got Hate Mail, continuing its hit Off Broadway run at The Triad in Manhattan.
upperwetside: With the understanding that there’s a whole new team in place at Surflight this season, is this the first time you’ve ever done anything there?
BILLY VAN ZANDT: It is; I used to come down all the time when I was in high school to see shows, but I never performed or directed anything here…Roy Miller took the place over last year to save it, and when he called me about this show, I passed on it at first, because of the New York show. But he told me ‘we’ll work around it,’ and well, here I am. It’s slightly insane, you know, I’m staying down on Long Beach Island every other night, and it’s made my drive to New York a lot longer than usual.
So how are things going with HATE MAIL in the city? You’re still acting in it yourself each weekend, while you’ve got this and other projects going on?
It’s going great; we’re letting Jane take a little break and in the meantime we’ve got Julia Duffy coming back to the show, and then some soap opera stars — Tonja Walker from One Life to Live, and Meg Bennett from General Hospital. It’s a brand new show, every time we bring in a new person to play one of the parts.
Maybe you’ll be able to coerce one of your Odd Couple into sitting in on the show as well? And maybe you can’t answer this, but do you have any idea if Cindy and Jo Anne have ever worked together at any point?
They knew each other from functions and things like that, but they never worked together til now. Jo Anne I worked with previously, when we did the West Coast premiere of Moon Over Buffalo — she did the Carol Burnett role. She and I work exactly the same way…she’s very smart, very organized, with great acting chops. And I worked with Penny Marshall in the past, so now I pretty much HAVE to work with Cindy Williams!
The two of them are so much fun to work with, too. When I took on the show, I thought they were going to be cast as the opposite characters to what they’re actually playing — and you know, it couldn’t be any other way than the way we’re doing it — it’s just perfect. Jo Anne is the Florence character in real life; she’s always dusting, straightening pictures.
A lot of women think they have to be ‘manly’ to play the Olive role, but what Cindy understands — and we’ve all met women like this — is that you can be feminine, yet at the same time be this incredible slob.
Well, you’ve always been someone who enjoys working with someone who enjoys working with you, if that makes any sense…
I am really having a ball — I worked so hard the first week, and now I’m sitting back laughing at what the cast is doing with their parts.
You needn’t name names if you don’t want to, but since showbiz success so often revolves around combinations of big personalities and egos who just don’t get along, has there ever been someone who you swore off working with ever again? Or does the end result trump any tension or conflict that might have occurred behind the scenes?
I would say that offstage, I got along with everyone I ever worked with — but if the final product is good, I’ll work again with anyone, no matter how things went between us.
I prefer working with people who share the same sensibilities as me — life’s too short; why make it harder when you’re working? The second it stops being fun, is when I’m done.
The Odd Couple opens Thursday, August 4 at 8pm; plays five performances on the weekend of August 5 through 7 — then continues with a mix of evening and matinee shows from August 9 through 21. Take it here for tickets ($31 – $49).