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The Odd Couple: Taking Breaths Away One Laugh at a Time

The Odd Couple: Taking Breaths Away One Laugh at a Time

Ryan David Paul

Art Carney, Martin Short, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Randall, and Jack Klugman: an impressive list of talent. Now, thanks to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, we can add two more names, David Ivers and Brian Vaughn. This fall, for the first time, one of Neil Simon’s most beloved plays makes an appearance on the Festival stage. The Odd Couple will reunite artistic directors Ivers and Vaughn, last seen together in Stones in His Pockets. In an unexpected twist, they will alternate between the lead characters, Oscar and Felix.

Director J. R. Sullivan, who helmed last year’s production of Amadeus, calls The Odd Couple “a masterful work of situational comedy made especially strong by Simon's gift for character and quip. And this play, unquestionably one of his very best and that out of a full gallery of comedy gems, to my mind qualifies as one of the great comedies to come from the mid-twentieth century American stage. If tragedy dissects, comedy uncovers and corrects” (Director’s Notes, Utah Shakespeare Festival).

There are many variations concerning the origins of the play; however, all of them coalesce around the observations of Neil Simon. At some point, the playwright, watching the experience of male friends living together after a separation from their spouses latched on to the humor of two very different men, living together and trying to adjust to this new world in which they find themselves. In a recent episode of the popular Public Broadcasting program American Masters, Simon stated that he was writing a play in which the two main characters are “having the same fight with each other that they are having with their wives” (American Masters: Mike Nichols, Sullivan continues: “When The Odd Couple uncovers the ‘male animal’ and reveals his behavioral oddities in a prototypical setting, Oscar Madison's lair, something more than the hilarious happens (although hilarity indisputably reigns): survival for the better happens. And that is fitness enough, especially when crafted by the nimble Neil Simon. There isn't a better post-war comedy about the American male at the midlife crossroads” (Director’s Notes).

In March of 1965, when The Odd Couple premiered on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, Neil Simon was already a popular playwright. His first two plays, Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park had both been critical and popular hits. The Odd Couple, however, with its memorable pair of roommates, elevated Simon to the pinnacle of American theatrical culture and he soon became one of the most successful and prolific playwrights in the history of American theatre. After nearly one thousand performances, and several cast changes, The Odd Couple closed on Broadway. However, the story of Oscar and Felix would soon make its way onto movie screens across the country in a very popular 1968 film, followed by a long running, although often threatened with cancellation, television series from 1970 to 1975.

Sullivan sees the 1965 setting of the play as critical to understanding the underlying issues that cause friction between the two main characters, Oscar Madison, the “messy” one, and his suicidal friend Felix Unger, the “neat” one. Sullivan writes, “It is 1965. The New York Times costs a quarter, there are but three television networks, and you can get an eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive for around four hundred dollars. Everybody smokes, and no one has heard of cutting carbs, madras, or mini-skirts. There remains a predominantly middle class population living in Manhattan. But things are beginning to change in the American culture, perhaps especially in the manners and mores of urban social circles. And many women, including—perhaps especially—wives, are beginning to assert themselves. Identity is an issue. Divorce rates are beginning to rise. So is male anxiety. Enter The Odd Couple” (Director’s Notes).

Neil Simon took full advantage of the material he observed as he carefully crafted the dialogue, specifically in the exchanges between Oscar and Felix. Working with Director Mike Nichols, who had previously directed Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, Simon showed draft after draft to Nichols who helped shape some of the colourful dialogue, often with unexpected results. Nichols stated, “The biggest laugh in the whole play came with a rewrite and we did not even recognize it as a joke. It was FU” (American Masters: Mike Nichols,—

Oscar Madison: “Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here the things I know you’re going to do when you come in irritate me. . . . You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you a hundred times, I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes, F.U.’ . . . It took me three hours to figure out F.U. meant Felix Unger” (Neil Simon The Odd Couple Act 3, pg. 77;

While Simon bases the premise of his play on his observations, it is obvious that his fictional creations, Oscar and Felix, as well as the other characters in the play, are representative of single, dominating traits—Felix, the uptight and compulsively orderly type, and Oscar, the devil-may-care and irresponsible type. Simon skilfully uses dialogue to deliberately construct the characteristics of each character to great effect.

Simon, in an amazingly humorous way creates room for the exploration of the human condition. We experience the dichotomy between order and chaos. We understand that this living arrangement fails because these two men have such radically different personalities. Simon takes great care to not let the audience judge who is “right” and who is “wrong” but that living together was just not a good idea. Oscar and Felix are friends when they decide to live together, but only in the public sphere. Once they begin to share the “private” space they see how difficult this redefining of their condition can be. The Odd Couple, and specifically Oscar’s apartment, is a laboratory showing us that for relationships to survive, compromises must be made. The Odd Couple illustrates for the audience that while some conflicts may be too great for compromise to occur, slight changes in personality and patience can bring understanding.

The Odd Couple is first and foremost a comedy. You are meant to laugh, and laugh long and heartily. Just remember to breathe.