The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple
By Neil Simon. John Frost for Crossroads Live. Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. 23 May - 23 June, 2024, then Theatre Royal, Sydney.

With its progress from stage play to movie and then a long running television series, the term ‘odd couple’ has passed into the language, and we all know what it means: a mismatched pair somehow living together.  In this iteration, the odd couple – divorcees Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar – one an incorrigible slob, the other a pernickety hypochondriac, are Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenny. 

With all due respect to the terrific supporting cast, Jacobson and McKenny would be the reason this production came about, and they are the reason to see it.  After being so wonderfully good as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray the partnership was too much fun and too good not to see them do something different.  The way they bounce off each other, with their split-second timing, is a joy to watch.

Each is greeted with a wave of applause as they come on stage – a sign of their popularity and of the audience’s familiarity with the characters they are about to play.  It’s to their great credit too, that they make the characters of Oscar and Felix their own; they’re not channelling Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon, or Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, despite playing exactly the same situation as their predecessors. 

The dialogue plays so well: it ripples, it builds on itself, it has rhythms the actors clearly enjoy, and there’s the inherent escalating conflict, as each character tries to top the other, that delivers laugh after laugh.  The opening poker game sets up the other guys (as types) with impressive economy.  Laurence Coy’s Speed is aggressive, verging on nasty, needling Jamie Oxenbould’s henpecked Vinnie.  John Batchelor’s accountant Roy is a grumpy complainer.  The standout and carrier of the most weight is Anthony Taufa’s Murray, the slow but caring cop.

But surely what audiences will also remember – with big smiles – are the English Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Penny McNamee) and Cecily (Lucy Durack).  Their interlude (actually nicely timed as the play is starting to drag just a little) is a comic turn in itself and the way the two sisters are so lively, sympathetic and clearly bonded provides a nice contrast to the conflicts that fuel the rest of the play. 

Neil Simon’s skill as a writer is, first, his insight into human frailty (the writer he admired was Chekhov).  Second, there’s the way that the scenes just keep rolling unstoppably along.  We don’t notice that what’s going on is a situation, not really a story.  There’s a Chorus – the guys of the regular Friday night poker games – and there’s comic diversion and a hint of sex – Gwendolyn and Cecily from upstairs – but basically, it’s two guys who get on each other’s nerves.  Of course, as a comedy there is the inevitable resolution.  But so engaging, so witty, is the interplay that we don’t question whether that resolution is just a little contrived and too easy.  Nor do we question that Oscar and Felix were best buddies before Felix moves in.  Really? Did Felix have to move in before Oscar notices how prissy, controlling and irritating Felix is?  As a regular at the poker games (established in scene one), how did Felix put up with the cigarette and cigar smoke, the stale food and the mess before his wife threw him out?  And how did the other guys put up with him?  (Maybe these are what we call ‘fridge questions’; it’s only when we get home, and open the fridge for a drink, that we say, ‘Wait a minute…’)

Here, Jacobson’s natural warmth gives us an Oscar who may be a slob, who’s a gambler late with his alimony payments, but he’s an amiable, happy-enough, loveable slob, not too heartbroken that he and wife Blanche broke up.  He takes Felix in primarily because he’s a big-hearted guy who cares for his friend.  McKenny meanwhile gives us a sustained, detailed traumatised Felix that did, I must say, set my teeth on edge.  If there’s a problem, it’s that McKenny’s performance is so complete, as it were, that is, closed, that there’s no way in for us.  Do we feel for Felix?  McKenny, and no doubt director Mark Kilmurry, push Felix to extremes: relentlessly solipsistic, self-pitying, as irritating for us as he is for Oscar.  But it is all in the script.  Only McKenny’s skill as a performer keeps it just this side of credible.  Which it not to say that he isn’t very funny. 

The Odd Couple now has the status of a ‘classic’.  It is not just well known, it is constantly revived and played all over this and other countries.  It is a gift to actors, it has a clear beginning, middle and end – it’s complete.  This production may rely on its leads, but they make it fresh.  It does not let down Neil Simon’s play and it gives the audience a very satisfying show.

Michael Brindley

Photographer: Pia Johnson

Subscribe to our E-Newsletter, buy our latest print edition or find a Performing Arts book at Book Nook.