The Odd Couple — the 1960s comedy that is as sharp as ever

The Odd Couple opens on a hot summer night in New York City and Oscar Madison (Francis Greenslade) is hosting a weekly poker game.  Oscar is a slob of nauseating quality.  His seven room apartment is foul from the stench of rotting food wafting from his broken fridge and his filthy clothes are strewn across every surface.  The apartment has been that way since his wife left him six months earlier, but everyone at the poker game is more concerned about where Felix Unger (Shaun Micallef) is.  It is completely unlike Felix to be late.   A phone call from Felix’s wife reveals that they have split up and he didn’t take it well. When Felix shows up a few minutes later he is distraught and suicidal.  The gang try to lift Felix from his despondent mood and Oscar eventually offers Felix a place to stay.

Both men take to their bachelor lifestyle in completely different fashion and within minutes of moving in, Felix starts systematically cleaning the apartment.  He fusses over everything from plumping the couch cushions to the air quality of the apartment and walks around liberally spraying every surface with disinfectant.  Oscar does not hold back his dissatisfaction and soon the audience are in stitches as Oscar and Felix clash over the house rules of their bachelor pad.

The close of act one leads nicely into act two with the bachelors having just arranged a double date with their neighbours.

Written by Neil Simon—who is considered the world’s most successful playwright having received more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer—The Odd couple premiered on Broadway in 1965.  But the storyline is by no means light and fluffy as the play confronts complex issues from suicide, divorce, parental rights, conflict, depression, sexism, financial hardship and problem gambling.  Because the script has depth and fearlessly goes to some dark places of the human experience it makes the comedic elements feel sharp despite it having been written over fifty years ago.

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The universality of the themes has resulted in the play having successful runs everywhere from Venezuela to Japan.  It has also had several reincarnations as television series in the 1970s, 1980s and now an updated version starring Matthew Perry which is on in its third season.

Simon once said, ‘The way I see things, life is both sad and funny.  I can’t imagine a comical situation that isn’t at the same time also painful.  I used to ask myself: “What is a humorous situation?” Now I ask: ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?”’

This is not just a two-man play, there is a sizable cast which do not simply orbit around the odd couple.  In the MTC production every cast member quite literally throws themselves into the play.  Each character is fully developed and have several distinct points of difference.  They all provide emotional support drawing on their own complex life experiences and varying marital statuses.  The cadence of the dialogue is well controlled which is particularly impressive as they create a real conversational feel, with the comedic beats liberally shared amongst the cast.

The odd couple themselves are not merely drawn from tropes, both men are emotionally complex and compelling.  The script is packed with whip-smart one-liners.  Simon also created spaces without dialogue allowing for a strangled silence between the odd couple to arise as their living situation reaches ever escalating heights of unease.  This sequence literally has the audience gasping for air watching Micallef’s physical comedy which he performs with supreme verve and flexibly.  He is in complete control of all the muscles in his body and seemingly every follicle of hair on his head and is matched for affect by Greenslade.  Not once does Greenslade’s loose-limbed and slovenly state look like an act, he exudes a sense of ease and playful irreverence.

They both look as though they were born to play these characters.  Interestingly, Greenslade and Micallef couldn’t decide who should play each role. They read through the play twice in the rehearsal room and allowed director Peter Houghton to make the decision.

The Odd Couple is the perfect play to wrap up MTC’s 2016 season.  Here’s hoping we don’t have too long for Greenslade and Micallef to reunite on stage again.

Score: 9/10

The Odd Couple is playing at Southbank Theatre until December 22

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