By Jenny Neyman
An odd couple. It’s such a common phrase that one need not have ever seen the Neil Simon play and subsequent takeoffs to be familiar with the reference to a buttoned-up, mannerly, meticulously scheduled, order-obsessed neat freak and the fun-loving, gregarious, unkempt, devil-may-care extrovert best friends, who nevertheless spend much of their time wanting to maim each other.
It takes some serious staying power to be so well known as to coin a stereotype of a relationship dynamic that’s still familiar nearly 50 years since the play debuted on Broadway. And Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar have just that, as evidenced by a production of the “Odd Couple” staged this week at Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna.
But they wondered if the script could live up to the fame, or if it was more the magic of the actors who popularized the show — Walter Matthau and Art Carney in its Broadway debut, Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the movie, and Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the Broadway revival.
Turns out that the acclaim for the script is no oddity — it’s every bit deserved.
“It’s really nice to see timeless writers like Neil Simon. A lot of times if you haven’t seen a production of this caliber in a while you think, ‘How great could Neil Simon be? How good could his writing actually be?’ But as you’re memorizing lines if you get something mixed up and paraphrased, when you go back and look at your script you see, ‘Oh, it’s a million times better the exact way he wrote it,’” Nelson said.
“He so carefully chose each word. Even the comedic beats are done syllabically to make them even funnier. It’s one of those scripts that you really want to memorize verbatim because it’s just written flawlessly,” he said.
But even with slavish adherence to the craftsmanship of the script, the show still offers ample opportunity for the cast to play — in delivery of the lines, in timing, in developing mannerisms to enhance the characterizations, and in the physicality of the show.
“The characters are so strong and there’s so much great stuff that we get to do — so much great business running around, screaming, yelling and throwing stuff,” McEwen said. “Some people might call them stereotypes, but that’s because these characters have created the stereotypes because they were so strong.”
So what forces them together for such fireworks to ensue? Felix’s wife has just thrown him out and his buddy Oscar, host of the weekly guys’ poker game, offers to let him move in, as he could use Felix chipping in on rent to help cover his alimony payments.
What starts as antithetic personality quirks they can laugh at over poker quickly escalates to irreconcilable differences of their own, not unlike the kinds that led to their divorces — Felix can’t stand a mess, and Oscar can’t be bothered to clean up. Felix gets keyed up about preparing just the right meal at just the right time for just the right occasion, and Oscar is so low-key he’d eat whatever, whenever. Felix likes order, and Oscar hates being ordered around. Basically, whatever Felix is, Oscar is not, and vice versa.
“They have complex personalities, but it’s really simple traits that make them who they are. It’s easy to see what would irritate each other, and Neil Simon finds just about every way to do that to each other,” Nelson said.
And the dialogue is only part of it. What’s even more irking is how things are said, or left unsaid, and the volumes that can be communicated in coiling a vacuum cord or setting down a glass without a coaster.
“They’re able to get under each other’s skin pretty easily,” McEwen said.
But only because, underneath it all, they really are friends. It takes someone who really knows you to really irritate you.
“Especially looking at the beginning of the show when Oscar’s comforting Felix and he says, ‘I love you almost as much as you do.’ For that time a guy saying he loves another guy, you didn’t see that very often, so they have a really strong relationship,” McEwen said.
Will the friendship stand the test of too much closeness? Felix and Oscar struggle to find out, with a cadre of poker friends, played by Chris Jenness, Dan Pascucci, Rob Ernst and Gary Hondel, to help them navigate the situation, as well as the neighboring Pigeon sisters (including Amy Hettinger Pascucci) to add some spice to their lives.
“The Odd Couple” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, at Triumvirate Theater in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $15, available in advance at River City Books in Soldotna, or at the door.