The Odd Couple is well-acted but dated
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.