The Not So Odd Couple

The Not So Odd Couple

Image: Todd McKenney and Shane Jacobson in The Odd Couple. Photographer: Pia Johnson.

Neil Simon’s classic play about two divorcees who flat together is on stage in Sydney, with Shane Jacobson (Oscar) and Todd McKenney (Felix) in the lead comic roles. David Spicer spoke to both actors, who have more in common than you might imagine.

Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy? That is the question posed at the outset of The Odd Couple, which was written just on 50 years ago and still resonates. 

The answer is no. The old friends - Oscar Madison, a slovenly sportswriter, and Felix Ungar, a fastidiously neat photographer - drive each other to distraction.

Many brilliant acting combinations have played those lead roles. Walter Matthau and Art Carney on Broadway in 1965, Jack Lemmon and Matthau again on film, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall on TV, whilst Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick stepped into the Broadway revival in 2005.

Shane Jacobson, the original dunny cleaner in the movie Kenny, and Todd McKenney, the original star of The Boy From Oz, certainly look the part – but looks can be deceiving.

In the play, Felix peeks under Oscar’s bed and notes that “There are things growing under there!”

This is something which you would never actually find if you looked under Shane Jacobson’s mattress.

“I'm a lot cleaner than people would expect. I'm not a clean freak, but I do find comfort in having an orderly house. I grew up in a house that was kept very neat by my mother. We made our beds every morning before we left to go to school. So, by nine o'clock it was already perfect,” Shane told me.

Todd agrees that Shane is not a Felix Ungar slob, but clearly stamps himself a neat freak by observing that Jacobson occasionally has what he describes as a messy dressing room.

Whereas McKenney knows “where everything goes on my dressing table. I know where every piece of makeup is. My dressing room table is so precise I could operate on it.

“I get to the point where I aggravate myself with my neatness. I can’t go to bed at night until my house looks like a hotel. I am forever cleaning up as dinner parties are in full swing.”

Todd says there are other aspects of Felix’s personality which he can’t identify with.

Felix Ungar: Everyone thinks I'm a hypochondriac. It makes me sick.

“I'm not a drama queen,” insists Todd. “I'm not a hypochondriac, but I can obsess about things. If something gets in my head, I need to solve it before I can sort of move on.”

Image: Jamie Oxenbould, John Batchelor, Laurence Coy, Todd McKenney, Shane Jacobson, Anthony Taufa in The Odd Couple. Photographer: Pia Johnson.

Shane says he can identify with the relaxed personality of Oscar. “I guess there's a casualness to me that rings true, that makes me identify more with the character, but I said yes to this role not because of my similarities with Oscar, but because it's great writing by Neil Simon.”

The two characters are written as straight men, but aspects of Felix’s personality (his love of opera and effete mannerisms) have led to speculation that he could be gay. This is something which has crossed Todd’s mind.

“Well, you’d have to wonder, and actually when you Google that, there's a lot of forums on the internet asking that question about this role in this show.

“It's one of the questions we asked the Director Mark Kilmurry, because Australian audiences know the narrative and they know me and Shane.  There is some dialogue in there that has homosexual connotations.

“So, our question to Mark is, do we lean into that? Or do we not? So, we're going to sort of play around with that.

“My take is that maybe you say those lines and just let a beat go, where Shane and I just give each other a little glance, and then move on.  So, the audience knows that we know, but without kind of breaking the fourth wall and turning it into something else, because I think you've got to stay true to the script.

“Lines like ‘come into the kitchen and I’ll sit on you’, and ‘nobody likes black meat’, and there’s a scene in the play where he is massaging me because I’ve got a nerve spasm in my back. These are the sorts of things we’ll have fun with.”

Image: Shane Jacobson, Todd McKenney, Lucy Durack, Penny McNamee in The Odd Couple. Photographer: Pia Johnson

The pair have a good on-stage chemistry, which Jacobson says is helped by their friendship.

“On paper, we shouldn't be friends,” says Shane.

“I’m the kind of knockabout Australian bloke who's into the cars, rode dirt bikes, and did boxing. And Todd McKenney, Australia's musical theatre royalty, is probably the opposite of all that.

“Like Todd is into art and I’m into art a bit. We both love cars. I have lots of cars but Todd likes old English ones, so we talk about that.

“I think opposites can attract as long as they have a shared sense of humour. As long as you find the same stuff funny then you are away.

“But the truth is I tap danced for my kids.  And, you know, the most comfortable place you'll find me is on stage in a theatre. One thing we do share is a similar sense of humour and that makes a great friendship.”

Todd recalls meeting Shane when they were preparing to work on the television series The Full Monty.

“We became friends the minute we met. We just clicked. I was in a coffee shop and then in came this hurricane which was Shane, telling this story about his son. I was thinking, oh my God this is a lot. 

“And then I kept listening to his brilliant story and we just never stopped talking. We just sort of knew each other from the moment we met, and never had a cross word. He's always got my back. He makes me laugh. I make him laugh.”

The two have completed several television specials and appeared together in The Rocky Horror Show, but their on-stage partnership brought the house down in Hairspray the Musical during the song ‘Timeless to Me’. 

Hairspray: Photographer: Jeff Busby

Shane was in a dress as Edna singing a sweet duet to her husband Wilbur (Todd). They had a licence to do a little ad-libbing and “some nights it would get out of control.”

“Todd and I are clearly very confident on stage, and we both knew that we were in safe hands. If he threw a line at me, I had a comeback, and anything I threw at Todd came straight back. It was like a game of great tennis.”

But don’t expect the two to veer off the script in The Odd Couple.

“Some of the subject matter is very old, but I think if you changed one or two things, you'd have to change too much. It has to stay exactly as it is.”

Todd says he is relishing not having to sing for his supper, which he describes as heaven. 

“In a musical (there is dialogue which leads) towards a song. In this play there are moments which feel like a song.

“What's dawned on me is you just feel that it's been really fine-tuned. You can tell everything is just polished and the writing just has a great rhythm to it. There are gags all the way, but the show never stops for the sake of the joke.”

McKenney said he has found learning the lines a challenge because they are so rapid fire, “like a ping pong match”, and his character often leads the conversation with new thoughts.

“I am picking topics out of the air, so I just hope I remember which subject is next, otherwise everyone will be going home early.

“Once we get in the room, I think it'll flow quite quickly. I think it is the writing which is the hero. Everybody can relate to two polar opposites.”

Shane says, “we've all had either brothers or sisters, or lived in shared apartments or been on tour, when you're in a room with someone that's different from you.

“Even with young couples. They can move into a house together and then discover little things that drive each other mad. And let's be honest, it doesn't have to be much.

“I mean, literally, if someone has a repeated habit, and it's as small as leaving a coffee cup on a table, over time, what starts with a coffee cup becomes like a like a tornado of emotions.

“It's like, my kids cannot accept the concept of taking a wet towel back to the bathroom and hanging it up; it seems impossible for them to do it. And it confuses me so much, but that isn't after 1000 times of being told.

“So, I think watching that on stage is what this play is about. But it's also about friendship, and as much as these little things drive each other mad, they are friends at the bottom of it all.”

Todd McKenney and Shane Jacobson in The Odd Couple. Photographer: Hugh Stewart

I invited Shane and Todd to provide me with three questions for each other, which I then asked on their behalf.

Todd: Why were you once refused service at an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant?

Shane: Because they considered that I could eat more than a normal human could eat. At the front desk the screen came up, your table is under review. 

Shane: Where do you keep your wallet in your dressing room? 

Todd: (side to David) I keep it in my drawer under my make-up desk. Why did he ask that? Does he want to nick it when I’m on stage?

 

Todd: Tell him I change it every show so that he doesn’t find it.

 

Todd: Why have you got a giant gnome in your front yard. 

Shane: Why haven't you got one? My goodness. If you don't have one, then something's wrong in your life. Everyone should have a seven-foot garden gnome – ours is called Gary. 

Shane: Do you continue to work with me just to find my flaws?  

Todd: Pretty much, we have been friends for years because you have so many of them. Not really. Shane’s flaws are his charm. 

Todd: Tell us the story of when we both went to see Mariah Carey at a concert in Las Vegas?

Shane: Mariah Carey spent so much time walking on and off stage getting her wardrobe changed, talking to a sound guy about what she wanted with a microphone, then talking to people side stage about the temperature of her water, that literally it was terrible. 

We've never seen anyone with such little empathy. We got so frustrated that she wasn’t giving us a proper show.   At the end of the performance, when everyone was applauding, we yelled out ‘give the ring back’ because we knew she had recently split with James Packer and had kept the engagement ring.  Although I would not have thought she heard us over the rest of the crowd.

Shane: Is it okay that I tell everyone that we're best friends?  

Todd: Oh yes, I’d be honoured. We became friends the minute we met. We just clicked the second we met each other. 

The Odd Couple plays at Theatre Royal Sydney from 27 June to 28 July, 2024. theoddcoupleplay.com.au

 

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