Two crew members plop into front-row seats.
With the director and the lighting person, that makes an audience of four for the duo rehearsing “The Odd Couple” in the small black-box theater at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
The actors, Ben Beverage of Lawrence and Mike Gulezian of Salem, New Hampshire, command the flat stage, playing Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison — a pair of unlikely pals.
It’s the first act. Circa 1965. Oscar’s messy house. Felix arrives in pieces, a chattering volcanic wreck trying to find his bearings after splitting with his wife.
FELIX: “Oscar — I think I’m crazy.”
OSCAR: “Well, if it’ll make you feel any better ... I think so, too.”
FELIX: “I mean it. Why else do I go to pieces like this? Coming up here, scaring you to death. Trying to kill myself. What is that?”
OSCAR: “That’s panic. You’re a panicky person. You have a low threshold for composure.”
Oscar, a fellow divorcee, is a schlump with an ox’s grace but a generous heart. He offers Felix cookies, coffee, Ovaltine, scotch, a neck rub and, finally, a place to live to assuage his emotionally distraught friend.
From there, the play unfolds. Can an impossible neat freak and a unrepentant slob coexist under the same roof?
Beverage and Gulezian, NECC students, bring chemistry to this question. Neat, punchy timing. Push of madcap and pull of sympathy. Energy and action comes like a succession of waves.
How do you know it works? The laughter.
Director Brianne Beatrice and students Armando Belliard-Harmon, the set designer; Dierdree Glassford, the production manager; and Geehae Moon, the lighting designer, are all laughing during the lunchtime rehearsal in the Chester W. Hawrylciw Theater.
The play, put on by the college’s Top Notch Players, opened there last night in the recently renovated 100-seat theater on NECC’s Haverhill campus.
It’s an intimate setting. Slink low in your first-row chair, lengthen your legs and your toes will encroach on the ground-level stage.
The seats are new, part of the $18 million upgrade to the Spurk Building, which, on the third floor, houses the theater.
Four shows remain, between tonight and Saturday.
In an interview, Beverage and Gulezian gush about playwright Neil Simon’s script.
Beverage said that it is the best-written play he’s read since “Hamlet.”
Simon’s words make the acting.
“He made the character,” Beverage said. “All I’ve got to do is portray what he wrote.”
Gulezian calls the script elegant, with no unnecessary lines, laying out a well-lit road map for the actors.
“Ultimately, it comes down to keeping the energy and the stakes high, and the script will do the rest,” he said.
Beatrice said that Beverage and Gulezian inhabit their roles with humor and intelligence.
Belliard-Harmon and Glassford said that Beverage and Gulezian breathe life into the comedy, giving it balance and bounce. You believe everything they do.
Gulezian sets Beverage up, letting the emotionally fraught Felix express his distress and peculiarities, crew members said.
“It is so natural,” Glassford said. “I just belly-laugh.”
This afternoon rehearsal was the first time that she had seen the duo perform the Act 1 scene.
Beatrice said that the cast and crew for the Top Notch Players production is a tight-knit group.
“We all wear many hats,” the director said.
For instance, Moon and Belliard-Harmon also play roles in the show. Glassford is both the production manager and the assistant director.
There are a lot of reasons to come see the production, Beatrice said.
Chief among them is laughter. Enjoy live theater. Relate. Feel the catharsis that laughter brings.
It’s also a chance to support the arts at a time when the college just cut its degree program in theater, along with dance.
The college will continue to teach dance and theater classes as electives and support the NECC Dance Club and Top Notch Players acting group.
Beatrice said that Merrimack Valley theatergoers have relied on the school’s productions as a vital cultural connection for many years.
“I think that we need to remind the community and the school system that we’re alive and still working and we want to keep doing this,” she said.
“The Odd Couple” does just that.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Odd Couple”
When: Today at 4 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m.
Where: Chester W. Hawrylciw Theater, Spurk Building, third floor, Northern Essex Community College, 100 Elliott St., Haverhill
How much: $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors
CAST AND CREW
Newburyport: Matthew Hewett
Groveland: Ben Joyall
Boxford: Noah Greenstein
Haverhill: Armando Belliard-Harmon
North Andover: Sarah Durning
Lawrence: Benjamin Beverage
Marblehead: Brianne Beatrice
Salem, N.H.: Mike Gulezian and Aaron Lehner
Newmarket, N.H.: Dierdree Glassford
Newton, N.H.: Geehae Moon