Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple premiered in 1965. It went on to become his most successful work, spawning multiple stage iterations as well as a film and popular TV show. Watching it again live and in theatre at the Ensemble Theatre reminded me why. It is funny, witty, relevant and all of the characters are fully drawn.
Ensemble Theatre’s The Odd Couple is finely formed, well directed by Mark Kilmurray and the essence of the original is not lost, even if it’s over 50 years after the original production.
In fact, this production feels fresher than many contemporary plays. It’s an example of well done humour.
This play cemented Simon’s stardom. It was made into a film with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the title roles in 1968. Just two years later, The Odd Couple premiered as a TV series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.
While Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar are the main stars of the play, all the other characters are also given iconic lines and at times it’s quite an ensemble performance.
Murray: What are you, crazy, letting him go to the john alone?
Roy: Suppose he tries to kill himself!
Oscar Madison: How’s he gonna kill himself in the john?
Murray: Whaddaya mean, how? Razor blades, poison, anything that’s in there.
Oscar Madison: Nah, that’s the kids’ bathroom. The worst he could do in there is brush his teeth to death.
We first meet Oscar (Steve Rodgers) who has been living on his own since separating from his wife and children. His house is a mess, he is behind in maintenance payments and dreads every phone call as it’s likely to be a debt collector.
To help win the funds over to pay for maintenance or make a dent in his debts he plays poker weekly with a bunch of his mates. It’s a group which is instantly likeable and recognisable for their traits.
Then there’s Vinnie (Nicholas Papademetriou), a nervous New Yorker who is under the thumb of his wife and informs the group constantly what time he has to get home. Murray (James Lugton), a police officer, tries to keep the peace, Roy (Robert Jago) Oscar’s accountant and Speed (Laurence Coy), the driest wit of the group. Each character has their only distinct identity which is attributed within their lines.
The premise of the set up is that Oscar is a slob – he’s a sports writer who drinks heavily, smokes and watches every game while wearing food-stained leisurewear and messing up every area he enters. Felix is a neat freak, wiping down table surfaces, putting out drink coasters, and folding clothes. He is the polar opposite to Oscar and thus the conflict begins.
The Odd Couple begins with the news that Felix has gone missing. Never being late, Felix hasn’t turned up for poker and his wife says she doesn’t know where he is. The other poker players start to worry and eventually Felix turns up. He has been thrown out by his wife who can’t stand being married to him any longer.
As Felix says, “I can’t help myself. I drive everyone crazy. A marriage counsellor once kicked me out of his office. He wrote on my chart, ‘Lunatic!’… I don’t blame her. It’s impossible to be married to me.”
Felix has nowhere to go and Oscar is living in an eight-roomed apartment on his own. He suggests that Felix should stay a few nights. A few turns into a more permanent living arrangement but Felix can’t live in the mess Oscar thrives on and Oscar can’t stand the fastidiousness of Felix. But, by living together, the two men somehow create a kind of marriage and learn to compromise. It’s not a story of happy endings, but just a humorous take on life after divorce – something that in the late 60s was very topical. Simon is an expert with dialogue and the kinds of things that people do say around a kitchen table, or a poker table as the case may be.
Oscar: I’m warning you. You want to live here, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you and I don’t want to smell your cooking. Now get this spaghetti off my poker table.
Felix: Ha! Haha!
Oscar: What the hell’s so funny?
Felix: It’s not spaghetti. It’s linguini!
It’s a blokey comedy but does have a couple of women thrown in who are also funny in their own right. English sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily (even Oscar Wilde couldn’t have made them more English!) are played by Katie Fitchett and Olivia Pigeot. They are larger than life good time girls known as the “Pigeon sisters – you don’t spell it like Walter Pidgeon, you spell it l like coo-coo pigeon” – who Oscar and Felix try to date (at least Oscar tries to date them). Felix just opens his heart about his estranged wife and children, which amazingly wins them over.
Rodgers is perfect as the unkempt Oscar from the start, while Brian Meegan as Felix establishes himself in the role a little more gradually.
The play is enjoyable from start to end and boasts one of the larger casts for an Ensemble production. It’s perfectly silly season fare with some heart thrown in.
Feature image: The Odd Couple. Photographed by Prudence Upton. Image supplied.