During the mid-1960s when his soon-to-be-legendary career as a playwright was just taking off, Neil Simon decided to tweak the longstanding trope of the mismatched companions. Stretching back at least to the Mutt and Jeff comic strip in the early 1900s, this storied lineage includes Laurel and Hardy as well as Abbott and Costello of “Who’s on First?” fame. Simon’s coup was to modernize the pairing by making Oscar Madison a life-loving slob of the first order and Felix Unger a neat freak wrapped in neuroses.
Thus was born The Odd Couple, a comic property so hot that it spawned a film and multiple television adaptations along its way to becoming a pop culture touchstone that endures to this day. Given the myriad ways in which other directors have put their stamp on this ageless tale — from turning Felix and Oscar into women to utilizing the Kabuki form — director Robert Kramer’s decision to stage this Miners Alley Playhouse production in the play’s original 1965 New York City setting is inspired and heightens both the many similarities and striking juxtapositions between then and now.
This version of The Odd Couple takes place almost entirely within Oscar’s (Len Matheo) expansive Manhattan apartment. The play opens during a weekly poker night attended by a cop, Murray (Sam Gilstrap), an accountant, Roy (Ryan Goold), a nebbish, Vinnie (Greg Alan West) and a churl, Speed (Scott Cuzac Tuffield). Having divorced a few months earlier, Oscar’s home has become such a pigsty even his poker buddies complain.
When Felix (James O’Hagan-Murphy) finally arrives, his uncharacteristic tardiness is explained by the fact that his wife is leaving him. Oscar declares that Felix should move in with him while he sorts out his divorce.
It becomes apparent almost immediately that Oscar’s act of generosity could spell doom for his and Felix’s friendship. While maintaining its heterosexuality, the relationship quickly takes on the traits of a stereotypically dysfunctional 1960s marriage. Oscar is the slovenly, inattentive husband always late to dinner and never offering enough praise for it, while Felix is the needy housewife forever fretting about overcooked roasts, dirty dishes and dirty clothes on the floor.
This dynamic leads to some knee-slappingly good exchanges executed effortlessly by Matheo and O’Hagan-Murphy. With a delivery reminiscent of a gruffer Jimmy Kimmel, Matheo’s performance hearkens back to those of the two most famous Oscar’s before him, Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman. Matheo excels at the balancing act between the prickly elements of Oscar’s personality and his pure, sweet humanity, and he is easily the most relaxed performer on stage
O’Hagan-Murphy similarly pays homage to famous Felix forerunners Jack Lemmon and Tony Randall while still making the character his own. He embraces the numerous moments of physical comedy the script affords him, and when he takes the two frisky English neighbors, Gwendolyn (Missy Moore) and Cecily (Samara Bridwell), from a sexy boil to a weeping simmer in two sobs flat you can’t help but doff your hat to his acting.
With only a select few scenes to work with, it would be easy for the supporting cast to get lost in the shuffle, but each actor makes the most of his or her minutes on stage. Though given the least to do, Ryan Goold steals one of the later poker night scenes as he struggles like a drowning man to reach and disable an accursed air-freshening unit installed by Felix. Scott-Cuzac Tuffield and Greg Alan West present as the most authentically New York of this group of purported New Yorkers. Sam Gilstrap astounded me with his range. When last I saw him, he played a hot-headed yokel. Here, he plays a softie urban cop with equal skill and a significant amount of warmth.
The only complaint I have about The Odd Couple is its tendency toward volume overload. Perhaps it was just a case of opening night adrenalin, but every character seemed to be yelling most of his or her lines. While many moments — whether it’s Speed carping about the glacial pace of the poker game or Oscar blowing his top at Felix for ruining their date with the neighbor ladies — demand a forceful delivery, some simply do not. I firmly believe that more modulated, nuanced line readings scattered throughout the play would greatly enhance this production.
Even so, The Odd Couple scores easily as a success. It’s a production well worth seeing.