When the original production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple opened on Broadway in 1965, New York Times critic Howard Taubman called its opening scene “one of the funniest card sessions ever held on stage.” He went on to say that Simon and director Mike Nichols continued to outdo that scene throughout the play. Audiences agreed.
Walter Matthau, as the slovenly Oscar, and Art Carney, as the neatnik Felix, won raves as well. The show went on to be reincarnated not only as a movie (with Matthau reprising Oscar and Jack Lemmon as Felix), but also as a much-loved TV sitcom with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, which ran from 1970-75. There was even a 1985 female production, rewritten by Simon, with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno as the renamed Florence and Olive.
With such an illustrious history, it’s hard to be critical of The Village Theatre’s production of The Odd Couple, especially since the Village has, as usual, assembled a first-rate cast and production team. The entire play takes place in Oscar’s Upper West Side apartment, and scenic designer Martin Christoffel has perfectly captured the look of a badly designed 60’s flat, complete with flocked wall paper and Danish Modern furniture.
Director Jeff Steitzer shows a deft hand with the staging, holding the slapstick in check and largely allowing the dialog to carry the humor. Charles Leggett’s Oscar is the ultimate slob with a heart of gold and an authentic New York accent; Chris Ensweiler is a Felix who manages to make us feel sorry for him despite his extreme prissiness. As their card game buddies, John X. Deveney, Eric Polani Jensen, Roger Welch, and Matt Wolfe are human and believable, while Caitlin Frances and Betsy Schwartz as the upstairs sister-neighbors are suitably ditzy.
The problem is with the play itself — specifically the fact that it is simply outdated. There are still plenty of verbal zingers, but the basic premise — that two men whose marriages are on the rocks can’t make a meaningful new life for themselves — just doesn’t fit with current-day society.
From a 2012 perspective, Oscar — uncouth and alcoholic — and Felix — sensitive and food-obsessed — are inaccurate stereotypes of the typical masculine and feminine roles. And although the many references to alimony and the strain it places on both of them may serve as excellent sociological and legal history, they are no longer either funny or relevant. What resonance The Odd Couple does have today is probably felt most strongly by generations old enough to have lived through the dark days of divorce and sexual stereotyping, and they’d probably just as soon forget what that was like.
Steitzer, who also directed The Odd Couple at ACT Theatre 10 years ago, writes that he is increasingly attracted to plays from his past and that this was one of those that taught him what a well-made play is. There is no question he’s right about that; Simon knows how to set up a situation, create engaging characters, convey a sense of place, develop a dramatic arc with a climax shortly before the play ends, and resolve the situation in a satisfying denouement.
It is possible to enjoy The Odd Couple purely as a period piece that captures what the ‘60’s were like, when divorce rates were starting to climb and rental on an 8-room flat in New York was $240 a month. If we do that, it’s easy to appreciate just how different things are today when one of the most hotly debated subjects — in the Washington state Legislature and elsewhere — is same-sex marriage. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby.
If you go: The Odd Couple, Village Theatre, through February 26 (Issaquah), March 2-25 (Everett). Tickets $43-62, (Issaquah), $36-56 (Everett) by calling the box office (Issaquah: 425-392-2202 or 866-688-8049; Everett: 425-257-8600 or 888-257-3722) or online at www.villagetheatre.org. Senior and student discounts available.