The years, and an intervening, long-running TV show, have fuzzed our memories of what Neil Simon’s great comedy was about, but Theater J’s fine production will set us straight. Oscar Madison (Rich Foucheux) and Felix Ungar (J. Fred Shiffman) are not stock comic characters, cranky and neurotic in turn, but unhappy men with deep emotional problems, who are as dependent on each other as partners in a three-legged race. Though not all pain is funny, all real humor derives from pain, and thus Foucheux and Shiffman are, together, achingly funny.
Director Jerry Whiddon acknowledges the dramatic basis of this comedy by rounding out Oscar’s Friday night poker game with four first-rate dramatic actors – Delaney Williams as Murray the cop, Michael Willis as Vinnie, Paul Morella as Oscar’s accountant, Roy, and Marcus Kyd as the cigar-smoking, constantly outraged Speed. These four actors, who buy into their comic characters’ inadequacies completely and thus sell them completely to us, largely carry the first Act, while we are adjusting to the outsized deficiencies of Oscar and Felix. By the second Act we understand the two main characters fully, and the play soars.
Oscar is a slob, but that’s the least of his problems. His apparently traumatic divorce has cauterized off his ability to love. (“Dabby? Who’s Dabby?” he barks into the phone before he realizes that it’s his son on the other end of the line. “Oh, Daddy!”) It is a point which Simon makes with great subtlety, since it was a point of protocol in male society in the mid-sixties (and, to a lesser extent, now) to disguise affection in a barrage of joking insults and rude comments. Whiddon gets it, though, and Foucheux delivers, making Oscar a little more pointed, a little more wounding, in his nasty remarks than his poker-playing buddies are, but never so obnoxious as to make his disdain and anger obvious to them.
Felix is on the surface more eccentric than Oscar, but an examination of the whole man shows him to be healthier and more balanced, and that is exactly how Shiffman plays him. Felix’s penchant for domesticity would have been unusual for a man of his time, but certainly not unheard of, and Shiffman, by making cleanup look easy and graceful, gives us a portrait of an unremarkable man who likes to keep his living space neat. Felix is a bit of a drama queen – he makes a gesture at suicide before he appears onstage – but the underlying pain is real. His wife, who he loves as the flower loves the Sun, has given him the boot, and his life has accordingly turned into ashes. When Oscar proposes that Felix move into his large apartment with him, they both agree that it is to save on expenses, but the real reason is to give Felix’s life back to him.
Like a literary novelist, Simon grows his humor from his characters (Simon said he based the play on the relationship between his brother Danny and his roommate and friend, Roy Gerber). Oscar professes to love his friend (in this play, as in Shakespeare’s, men declare their love for each other without a scintilla of a suggestion of sexuality), but it is hard for him to put this love into practice. He may love Felix, but he has a hard time accepting him. He convinces Felix to break through his self-imposed reserve to throw a cup against the wall in anger (Felix strains his arm in the process), but when Felix expresses himself by weeping without restraint over his lost relationship before the visiting Pigeon sisters (Lise Bruneau and Helen Pafumi), Oscar is horrified, and enraged. Of course, the Pigeons melt.
A few words about the Pigeons: they are a type of person – goodhearted, emptyheaded, twittering British birds – which hardly exists anymore, and is almost never represented in art these days. In a mediocre production of this play, they will seem like irritants, and distractions from the main story. Here, the actors accept their characters completely, and play them without a hint of artifice. As a result, we accept them fully as well. Pafumi and Bruneau, who last appeared together at Theater J in the ultraserious Mikvah, give us Pigeons with their dramatic integrity intact, allowing us to laugh freely.
You probably know how the story ends, or, if you don’t, I’m not going to tell you – except to say that it ends correctly. The Odd Couple, as staged with loving fidelity by Theater J, is as serious as life, and accordingly, as funny.
The Odd Couple
By Neil Simon
Directed by Jerry Whiddon
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Barbara MacKay . DC Examiner
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
Trey Graham . City Paper
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
Andrea . BrightestYoungThings
Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
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