Left – Steve Rodgers and Brian Meegan (seated). Cover – Steve Rodgers and Brian Meegan. Photos – Prudence Upton
Recently-divorced Oscar runs a weekly poker game in his large and now rather empty New York apartment with his various male friends, only on one night to find that a regular attendee, Felix, has become near-suicidal upon being kicked out by his own soon-to-be-ex-wife. Oscar offers to help his distraught buddy out by letting him move in, but soon finds that the miserably neurotic Felix’s fastidious ways are wildly incompatible with his own slovenly lifestyle. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
Probably the best-known play in Neil Simon’s legendary career, 1965’s The Odd Couple certainly has enjoyed a wider cultural dissemination via its successful adaptation into a 1968 film, and subsequently a 1970-1975 television sitcom. However, I had the rather interesting, and perhaps unusual experience, of approaching this show with no prior direct exposure to the material. This had some unexpected effects, given my preconceptions.
Chiefly, the play was not as straightforwardly about the sound byte of a premise that I’d culturally osmosed over the decades – simply put, a slob and a neat-freak try to live together and inexorably drive each other crazy.
Of course, that is what the play is about… but it also covers the emotional toll of divorce, the clash of differing models of masculinity, the often fractious bonds of male friendship and, to my surprise, mental health issues.
While there is a danger of viewing a play of this vintage through an excessively 2019 lens, I was surprised that this generally light comedy of manners opens with a prolonged sequence in which a group of male friends are concerned that one of their number may be in the process of attempting suicide. And although it is played for situational humour, it also has a definite edge to it. Felix’s anguish and sense that his meticulously curated life has crumbled around him has clearly taken a lot of his shaky self-worth down with it. This is a clear thematic throughline of the play, and the prospect of him being suicidal gets a callback near the conclusion in a form of emotional blackmail that, in a more serious drama, could play quite darkly indeed.
Similarly, and again perhaps with an overly contemporary skew, I found myself quite surprised by how… disproportionate Felix and Oscar’s mutual irritation with each other came across. Perhaps this play is something of a Rorschach test of personal housekeeping standards, but I very much came away with the impression that the two leads’ respective potential for annoyance was quite uneven. While Oscar can be something of a hedonist and definitely an untidy, even unhygienic lout, Felix’s obsessive cooking and cleaning, hypochondria and relentless nagging come across as a far far more insufferable prospect to live with, and a more justifiable source of frustration than vice versa.
Indeed, while the descriptors for Felix of being “neurotic” and “crazy” are bandied about with alacrity, looking at this play from a current perspective makes one consider the question of his mental wellness more seriously, quite aside from his potentially self-harming depression. Upon hearing of self-reported behaviour like getting up in the middle of the night to clean his entire house after both his maid and wife had already done so, Simon’s portrayal of Felix reads as a man who is in all likelihood “on the spectrum”, suffering from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or both.
Whether it was the playwright’s intention to frame Felix alone as being not “neurotypical”, or was simply comedically depicting the two men as polar extremes (as, I suspect, was more the premise of the later television version) is perhaps now beyond our ken. While both characters are sympathetic and flawed in their own ways (Oscar, for example is an irresponsible gambler behind on his child support payments), the balance, to my eyes at least, was far more skewed than expected. Oscar seems to be basically just a sloth who needs to smarten up, whereas Felix gives the impression of a man in need of serious help.
Also surprising is that this show is less of a two-hander than the premise and title would suggest, with an eight-strong cast including the other members of the regular poker game, each an amusing and idiosyncratic character portrait in their own right, and the hilarious if rather thinly-drawn Pigeon Sisters, who are the objects of Felix and Oscar’s disastrous double date. Each actor in these supporting roles is superb under the direction of Mark Kilmurry’s finely-honed comic timing, but special plaudits go to the hysterically funny Nicholas Papademetriou, as the nebbish card shark Vinnie.
In the key roles are the wonderfully endearing Steve Rodgers as Oscar and the incredibly nuanced Brian Meegan as Felix. Despite the shadows of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon, or Jack Klugman and Tony Randall looming large over the twin roles, while the play unfolded I never once found myself imagining these other actors as the characters. Rodgers and Meegan form a superb double-act, bouncing off each other’s distinct and fully-realised performances, wholly and indelibly inhabiting these roles, making them their own.
The Ensemble Theatre’s intimate space is the perfect setting for this wonderful revival of a classic play, with a beautifully directed cast that simply couldn’t be better at delivering this enduringly funny and at times surprisingly moving material. Certainly recommended for lovers of strong character-based comedy.
Ensemble Theatre presents
The Odd Couple
by Neil Simon
Director Mark Kilmurry
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli NSW
Dates: 22 November – 29 Deceber 2019