Rick Foucheux and J. Fred Shiffman on playing Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in Theater J’s The Odd Couple.
They are two of my favorite actors and two of the nicest people I know. What I respect most about Rick Foucheux and J. Fred Shiffman is that they are both eloquent and passionate about their work. Audiences are roaring (as I did) at Theater J as they watch Rick and J. Fred play the sloppy sports writer and the neatnick/gourmand Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. It’s such a joy watching them work together again in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
Joel: Why did you want to play the roles of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger and have you worked together before?
Rick: I’ve also long admired the work of Neil Simon. He’s certainly one of our great American dramatists and an inventor of a distinct and singular style of comedy. For the longest time I wanted to play Felix, but I sort of grew into Oscar. I’m glad the way it worked out.
Yes, Fred and I have worked together before, but long before that I had admired his work. I really looked up to him as one of the first local actors to be cast in the “big” houses back in the 70’s and 80’s.
Fred: I wanted to play Felix when I was told Rick was playing Oscar. And that’s the truth. Like Felix, I do like things clean and organized, and I’m a very fine cook. Rick and I have worked together before in The Arthur Miller Rep at Arena Stage, and in Twelfth Night at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, and again when we took the show to Princeton.
Joel: What is The Odd Couple about from your character’s point of view?
Rick: Oscar and Felix are both struggling to make the best of a bad situation. Through their mismatched ways of living they learn and grow and ultimately change. These characters are the perfect example of what we mean by “the journey.”
Fred: Friendship and Tolerance.
Joel: How would you describe each other’s performances?
Rick: Fred is a rock. His fun and humor come from real places in his personality, and that’s why he’s so easy to play off of.
Fred: Rick and I take a similar approach to our work. I would describe his performance as being everything I need to give my performance. It’s a gift we hopefully give to each other.
Joel: What has been your biggest challenge in playing these roles?
Rick: Acting takes amazing amounts of concentration – it really is a taxing mental exercise. Comedy multiplies that already tedious angle of the work, and a rapid-fire, precision execution of a comedy like this taxes one’s concentrative abilities even more. It’s a constant adding-on of plates to spin and balls to juggle.
Fred: Learning the show with the truncated rehearsal period and previews we were given. It is a most unfortunate situation that gains popularity at many theaters each and every day.
Joel: In all the productions I have seen in the past – both of these characters have been played ‘over-the-top’: Oscar screaming all the time at the top of his lungs and tossing garbage all over the place, and Felix the ultra-neurotic- honking like a goose and at times – a very pathetic guy.
Local reviewers were impressed by your ‘restrained yet very funny’ performances’ and said that your Oscar and Felix are ‘not stock comics… but unhappy men with deep emotional problems’. Are they right?
Rick: I’d like to know how you, Joel, responded to all the “over-the-top” performances you’ve seen. There’s a place for that, but I think Simon wrote something more realistic.
Joel: I found all the honking and shrieking quite annoying to be honest. You and Fred allowed Neil Simon’s funny and poignant words to be the ‘star’ of this production, and the only thing that was ‘loud’ was the roar of the audience reacting your wonderful performances and your delivery of these hilarious lines. You made Oscar and Felix more human and it’s the first time that I could relate to these two men on a personal level, and I commend you for that.
Fred: I hope they’re right. If it ain’t real…it ain’t funny.
Joel: What did Director Jerry Whiddon say to you about how he wanted you to play these roles? How would you describe his vision for this production of The Odd Couple?
Rick: Again, reality and fidelity to the human qualities of both of these guys was not only a goal but an anchor at times when we might have felt adrift or haunted by the icons of the play and the roles. Jerry assured from day one that if we were true to Oscar and Felix as real people, the humor would follow.
Fred: Truthfully….Jerry (being a great director AND actor himself,) said he would do his best to stay out of our way and asked that we tell him to’ shut up!’
Joel: How do you keep a straight face in your scenes with The Pigeon Sisters, played hysterically by Lise Bruneau and Helen Parfumi?
Rick: Thankfully, I don’t have to keep a straight face. Fred does. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the play, though I spend most of it off stage. I can see it from my backstage perch, and it’s a joy every night.
Fred: I would have no reason to laugh in their faces nor would I expect them to crack up at what I’m doing. We’re all concentrating moment-to-moment. Also…that’s what rehearsals are for…to get it “out of our systems”. They are a ‘Dream Team’, and it’s a pleasure, just as it is to share the stage with everyone else up there. Most of us go back decades as DC actors, and that’s a great prescription for ensemble acting.
Joel: Friendship is a main theme in The Odd Couple. Throughout most of the play Oscar and Felix are squabbling. What keeps them together despite all the friction?
Rick: They care about each other more than they do themselves.
Fred: They remain honest with each other, and that’s what makes them friends and not just acquaintances.
Joel: What line or lines that Fred says in the show, and Fred – what line or lines that Rick says in the show always makes you smile or laugh, and/or are your favorites??
Joel: Who is your favorite ‘card player’ in the show?
Rick: I love them all because none of them wins, and they all keep coming back for more.
Fred: Um…it depends on which of them will be reading this……so I’d say….HIM! Yeah…it’s definitely HIM!
Joel: Why do you think The Odd Couple is still so popular 45 years after it opened on Broadway?
Rick: Why? Because it’s funny.
Fred: It’s well-written and its truths transcend time.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Odd Couple at Theater J?
Rick: Some of that mess from the potato chip scene.
Fred: Something other than “He’s no Tony Randall or Jack Lemmon”!
The Odd Couple plays through November 28th at Theater J at The DC Jewish Community Center (‘DCJCC’), in Washington, DC.
Tim Treanor reviews The Odd Couple