"The Odd Couple": All the Laughs, and a Bit More
Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. The slob and the neatnik. We know these guys, since, like forever. They’re Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. They’re Walter Matthau and Art Carney and or Jack Lemmon. They’re “The Odd Couple.”
Yeah, those guys driving each other nuts like a married couple and delivering sure-fire laughs to thousands, millions of theatergoers, and movie and television viewers.
Neil Simon, until he actually got a Pulitzer Prize for “Lost in Yonkers,” used to complain regularly that he wasn’t taken seriously enough as an artist. He claimed people considered him just a superstar gag writer and author of hit plays—which in turn became hit movies, and in the case of “The Odd Couple,” hit television series.
He deserved better, but god bless him, he sure could make you laugh.
“The Odd Couple” is often used as Exhibit A of a big laugh machine. The production, now at Theater J at the JCC, is also Exhibit A for the case that Simon had a legitimate complaint. People forget. This production, with two of DC theater’s more gifted actors in the leads, shows again and for sure that Simon was writing about people who struck a chord with audiences, not just because gags and jokes came out of their mouths faster than a speeding bullet, but because they had something to say about who we were ourselves.
Simon, in short, was funny because he struck a nerve—because we men and women, single and married, old and young, all recognized ourselves in his characters. For men of a certain age, that’s especially true of Oscar and Felix, the most polar opposites who ever ended up sharing the same living space (except perhaps for Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman). For them, laughter isn’t just the best revenge, but also the best disguise.
We are so familiar with the plight of Oscar and Felix that we think the play is one joke after another, a barrel of laughs. And it still is in the sure hands of director Jerry Whiddon. The actors are equally commendable. Rick Foucheux plays Oscar Madison, a grumpy, divorced and perpetually broke sports writer. J. Fred Schiffman is Felix Ungar, an edgy, fussy, neat freak news writer who’s just been thrown out of the house by a long-suffering wife.
The laughs are still there—Oscar’s apartment where he and Felix hold a weekly poker game is alone worth the price of admission. When pigs fly, this is where they come to rest. The space, as imagined by designer Misha Kachman, looks like a city dump with a ceiling and windows where old milk cartons, beer bottles, cigarette butts, dirty ashtrays, and frayed couches share space with yesterdays socks and newspapers. It is a man’s cave, a man who’s completely forgotten how to clean up after himself and his friends.
When Felix can’t be found, but does finally show up at the poker game, there’s concern for the forlorn, wounded, almost-but-not-quite suicidal grown waif. Oscar, who hasn’t gotten over his own divorce, takes him in. The rest is basically a pain-filled, funny, destruction derby, especially when Oscar lures two expatriate British ladies from upstairs down for a disastrous couples dinner party.
Often, this material is played almost strictly for laughs: the nuances in the script get trampled by the situations, even when they revived the play with a female cast a couple of decades ago, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers.
Here the nuances, thanks to the actors, arise out of the situations to the point where you see Oscar and Felix for what they are: a couple of lonely guys, unused to being alone, who recreate exactly the atmosphere that caused their marriages to fail.
It isn’t just that Oscar is the ultimate cigar-smoking, milk-rotting-in-the-fridge slob; it’s become a proud habit with him. And Felix is the ultimate fussy, I-love-to-cook, control-freak type who goes so far as to wash the poker cards. These are ingrained habits that are bound to drive the other men crazy. And they do. And it’s funny. And it’s sad. And it’s just like men get sometimes when all they can do is what they’ve always been doing.
I don’t mean to suggest that “The Odd Couple” doesn’t retain the power to make everyone in the audience laugh. It does. It’s just that this production, thanks also to a great supporting cast, reveals itself to be a terrific play full of characters, instead of caricatures. Watch the two guys together on the stage: Foucheux’s Oscar stands up like a wad of paper unrolling itself; he’s all round valleys and paunches, balding a little at the top. Felix, next to him, often holding a duster or cooking utensil, is all straight lines, white shirt, tie, shiny, perfectly tied shoes, edgy face—you could get a paper cut just touching him. And they can’t help themselves, just as when Oscar drops a cigar butt on the floor in final exasperation and grinds it out with his feet, and Felix guilt trips him or nags him like a fussy mother or wife.
“The Odd Couple” is still funny as all get out. But now, when the laughter stops for a second, we see who Oscar and Felix are. They’re us guys, unfettered by the imagination.
“The Odd Couple” runs through November 28 at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street.