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By Rory L. Aronsky | August 30, 2006

Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” first performed on Broadway in 1965 has stretched itself by other creators not only to include various movies and television shows here in the U.S., but Britain as well. “Two’s Company” re-jiggered Simon’s work to reflect American and British differences through thriller writer Dorothy McNab (Elaine Stritch) and butler Robert Hiller (Donald Sinden), who so obviously have their dislikes toward each other’s cultures, first evidenced by Hiller wanting to leave McNab’s doorstep right away after realizing that she’s American. Where McNab is blunt and loves whiskey any time of the day, Hiller is quite proper and believes sherry to be the only appropriate alcohol at 11:30 a.m.

“Two’s Company” creator Bill MacIlwraith understands the need to let humor simmer. Gradually, just gradually, both characters establish themselves, but the laughs shouldn’t burst through right away in this case. Where other British television shows are content to do just that and celebratorially so, McNab and Hiller circle each other, poking around for those weaknesses which will give each an advantage over the other. Between America and Britain, the battle continues, though fortunately it’s not a shouting match. The first performances of Stritch and Sinden, entitled “The Bait” has them making bets on various matters. Hiller initially doesn’t want to work for McNab, her being an American, but she has him stay, betting him on a few important points, such as him not being able to make a great cup of coffee or him eventually working for her. Both actors make the dialogue glow, as they slowly test each other. There’s a moment which endears both actors to whomever is watching in which Hiller is setting up the lunch menu which will determine a lot for both parties. McNab explains that sometimes she prefers Rosé and Hiller brushes it off with a curt, “Colored water, Ma’am,” to which she growls, “Maybe I like colored water.” All taking place in the living room of McNab’s suburban flat in Chelsea, this gives each actor a chance to work their character out and they do so magnificently. At times throughout the season, Sinden looks like a British Harvey Korman, but prefers to keep his humor strapped to his dialogue and they way he speaks it. Preferred by way of the script no doubt, but still a most valuable asset.

Their differences keep on rising during the course of a six-episode season and the British most certainly know what makes their shows work and the difference between McNab and Hiller extends outward to the real-life differences between America and Britain. 24-episode seasons are appreciated here, which are believed to give audiences more time with their favorite characters, even at the risk of having no good stories to tell and having to fake the rest of a season. A show like “Will & Grace” simply stacks the episodes with a bevy of guest stars. Britain believes in economy. Characters are well-worth watching, but how can one or even two men at times sustain a show’s energy through 24 episodes? Bill MacIrwaith is the creator and sole writer for the show in this season, while producer and director Stuart Allen guides the episodes. Plus, with talent like Stritch and Sinden, so much energy can be had for only so long. There needs to be time to recharge and consider new ideas for future episodes. Both men aim for one common purpose: While McNab and Hiller disagree greatly, there needs to be a moment or two when they actually agree on something and that comes at the end of the season when Robert’s mother (Joyce Carey) comes to visit.

There are obvious episodes, such as “The Romance” which not only has McNab randily chased about by Sir Percy (Anthony Pedley) while his nephew tries to set up for a photo shoot, but Dorothy questioning Robert on Cricket, believing it to be just like baseball. There are also perfect episodes beyond the pilot, which include “The Patient” where Robert trips down the stairs, and ends up with a swollen ankle, prompting Dorothy to call every contact she has and being exposed to the English medical system for the first time. Fish-out-of-water could be the proper term, except Dorothy is only briefly surprised by what happens, then going into defense mode with her American beliefs. She wants action right away and the hospital she and Robert are at is slow to give it.

“Two’s Company” works because neither Dorothy or Robert will relinquish the standards they hold in their lives. As a butler, Robert will not remove himself from what he has held dear in his years of service, even going so far as to not always give Dorothy what she wants when it comes to cuisine, and Dorothy likes living in Britain because it gets her away from the neck-snapping pace of America, but she won’t give up her own values that easily. Just because she’s living in another country doesn’t mean she’ll change. However, the production does. Where American television shows are loathe to change sets around for fear of teeing off faithful viewers, Dorothy’s living room changes towards the end of the season, and therefore makes her a full-blooded person. People change and sometimes their living quarters do too. “Two’s Company” is charming and comfortable in that way, and always remains enjoyable. While it doesn’t always seem like the show will make us laugh, a lot of the scenes cement the characters and one can imagine improvement in later seasons. Slow and steady, and satisfying.

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