The latest Players Centre production is a classic tale of friends challenged with the task of coexisting in the same space.
According to Sartre, hell is other people. According to Neil Simon, hell is other roommates — especially if those roommates are Felix Ungar (Dylan Jones) and Oscar Madison (Jim Floyd). Their circle of torment is now on stage at The Players Centre.
The set-up? In his initial pitch, Simon put it this way: “Two men — one divorced and one estranged and neither quite sure why their marriages fell apart — move in together to save money for alimony and suddenly discover they’re having the same conflicts and fights they had in their marriages.”
That sums it up neatly. But you probably knew that already.
The premise of the play at hand, "The Odd Couple," is achingly familiar — especially after a hit TV show, countless stage productions, an all-female version and a sequel. Surprisingly, Simon takes his time easing you into the situation. The play opens in Oscar’s smoke-filled, trashed-up apartment in New York City in the mid-1960s. There’s a poker game in progress. Oscar and four of his buddies (Paul Hutchinson, Allen Kretschmar, Jason Macumber and Philip Troyer) are hunkered around the table, but there’s no Felix in sight. Then a phone call reveals that Felix’s exasperated wife has given him the boot. Felix shows up, and you start to see why.
Felix is a fussy, fidgety, neurotic, hypochondriac, passive-aggressive neat freak. Ah, but Oscar (a slovenly slob of a sportswriter) overlooks it and convinces his depressed, displaced friend to stay. What are friends for?
That’s easy to say on the first night.
But flash forward two weeks, and Oscar can’t overlook it anymore. His apartment is neat as a pin. Ah, but for a slob like Oscar, cleanliness is next to ungodliness. The new neatness comes at the devilish price of Felix’ constant vacuuming, dusting, ashtray cleaning, and fussing about.
After a few weeks bottled up with Felix, Oscar’s a ticking time bomb. Now he’s on his last nerve. Red-faced, teeth-clenched, eyes rolling — very much like Jackie Gleason primed to explode at Ed Norton. But Oscar keeps it together in hopes of a romantic romp with the aptly name Pigeon sisters (Carrie McQueen and Lauren Ward) — two giddy, giggly Brits living on the next floor.
The big night comes. Felix cooks a gourmet dinner, then turns into a doppelganger of Oscar’s nagging ex-wife when the sportswriter arrives tardy and tipsy. The Pigeons land and argument ends. Lustful Oscar thinks they’re in the bag. But the roast is ruined, and that’s all Felix can think about it. He ruins Oscar’s big night in a crying jag. Adding salt to the wound, the Pigeon sisters take Felix home to comfort him.
Simon has a few surprises after that, but plot isn’t the point. It’s all about milking the last drop of comedy out of character and situation. An odd couple: neatnik and slob. Mix and simmer on a low heat. How many gags can you cook up in a 90-minute play? When Simon’s at the typewriter, a helluva lot.
Elliott Raines directs this comedy classic with a loving attention to character detail. Little tells define each individual. Felix’s eyes darting about at dirt and debris. Oscar laughing a joke he keeps to himself.
Jim Floyd’s Oscar is a comic gem. It’s a totally original performance, not a Walter Matthau or Jack Klugman knockoff. Floyd’s hilarious characterization is suitably macho and slovenly, but he also conveys the keen intelligence a top sportswriter would possess. Jones’ Felix is simultaneously sympathetic and irritating. That’s a tough balancing act, but Jones pulls it off. He keeps you laughing while hinting of the character’s manipulative calculations.
Kudos also to Hutchinson, Kretschmar, Macumber, and Troyer for embodying the poker pals and to McQueen and Ward for evoking the cooing Pigeon sisters. Their characters are as broadly stereotyped as The Village People. It’s not Chekhov, folks. But it is very funny.
The hilarity ensues against the backdrop of Jeffrey Weber’s bachelor apartment set (shabby now, doubtlessly charming before Oscar’s divorce) and Tim Beltley’s period costumes (working-class casual, except for Felix).
Simon makes broad comedy out of a fairly realistic situation. But he never forgets the underlying humanity of his characters. Oscar isn’t a thug with a typewriter; Felix isn’t a nervous Nellie. They’re both still unloading the baggage that destroyed their marriages. But their friendship is bigger than their fights.
This play keeps you laughing.
Oddly enough, it also makes you care.