The Odd Couple is well-acted but dated

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By Neil Simon. Directed by John Murphy. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, January 29. Continues until February 23

Is The Odd Couple an enduring classic? I don’t think so. Playwright Neil Simon made his name with this script when it hit Broadway in 1965, but the polarized sexual culture of the ’60s, which created the tensions that fuel this comedy, are fading fast—so it’s not that funny anymore.

The Odd Couple used to capitalize on anxiety about heterosexual gender norms. In the story, Oscar, a sportswriter and a slob, is living alone in his eight-room New York apartment. His wife has left him and taken the kids, and he’s let the place get so filthy that even his Friday-night poker-playing buddies are complaining. When Felix, a neatnik, shows up late one Friday, he’s suicidal because his wife has left him too.

When Oscar and Felix decide to live together, they enter a relationship that looks like a distorted version of heterosexual marriage. Fussy, martyred, and emotionally manipulative, Felix is the wife. Bullying, frustrated, and prone to fits of rage, Oscar is the husband.

The play makes the point that it’s not gender differences that make us drive one another crazy; domestic relationships simply exaggerate human differences and force us into opposing camps. Beneath all of that, Felix and Oscar clearly love one another.

In the ’60s, Oscar and Felix’s “marriage” was funny because it looked queer, and acceptable because it wasn’t. And their love was touching both because straight guys—especially butch ones like Oscar—hardly ever got to express their affection for one another, and because Oscar and Felix became surrogates for men and women, who were on opposite sides of a supposedly massive gender divide.

But we’ve relaxed since 1967. The gay tension in The Odd Couple has lost much of its spin. And so has the heterosexual tension; few men are as belligerently masculine as Oscar once was.

Andrew McNee’s excellent work in director John Murphy’s production underlines my point. His Oscar is a giant, lovable toddler. He writhes on the floor when he feels guilty and claps his hands when delighted. This is charming—and sometimes hilarious—but it’s not scary. There’s no masculine threat. That kind of guy who could genuinely frighten with his fury—and give the comedy edge—is not the norm anymore.

Robert Moloney, who plays Felix, is also terrific. His Felix sobs in Act 1 and there is, suddenly, a whole lot of edge because the grief feels real. And Moloney aces his timing and business, tidying up even as Oscar is threatening to throttle him.

I also particularly enjoyed Joel Wirkkunen’s clowning as Murray, the thickheaded cop, and the scenes with the sexy Pigeon sisters from upstairs, who are played by Sasa Brown and impressive newcomer Kate Dion-Richard, roll out beautifully.

Some of director Murphy’s handling of comic business, including an endless exit by the poker players, works gangbusters. Other staging, including a kind of conga line formed by the players as they listen to Felix in the bathroom, feels artificial.

Ultimately, the centre of the evening doesn’t hold. Because we’re not as worried about gender as we used to be, The Odd Couple doesn’t make us as giddy.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
DavidH
Ummmm ... can we talk revisionism?

Casting "The Odd Couple" as some sort of exploration of gender roles and modern sexual awareness is silly. First, it's just a comedy. Second, it explores human differences (i.e. slob vs neat freak) and had nothing at all to do with gender roles or stereotypes - until now, of course, when deep sexual meaning must be carefully revealed to all.

Stop, already. "The Odd Couple" is funny, and that's all that matters. Felix wasn't gay, Oscar wasn't a hetero bully, Murray wasn't a jackboot cop, and the Pigeon sisters weren't lesbians on a feminist crusade. Really.
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Walker
@DavidH - if you really don't think that basic set-up of the Odd Couple is of two men stuck in a form of marriage and that much of the humour is derived from a man playing what is perceived to be a woman's role, then you might want consider the title of the piece and why Simon chose it.
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Colin Thomas GS
@Walker: Thanks. :-)
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EvanDor
I found this sociologically focused critique very insightful and thought-provoking. It persuades me that evolving societal norms and perceptions of gender roles, etc. are pushing The Odd Couple into the realm of dated theatre and perhaps eventually into the status of a period piece . On the other hand, it fails to convince me that Neil Simon's creation will not endure as a classic. How do you define "enduring classic"? If you mean that theatre companies should stop relying on it so much as a season staple and a sure-fire, fail-safe, hetero-normative crowd-pleaser, well, okay, maybe so. But I think that excellent performances of this material (the apogee of which is the Lemmon/Matthau movie) will always be hilarious.
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