Over the years, some shows that become classics get reduced in our minds to their most basic premise. Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” – now being staged at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre – is a prime example. We hear that familiar title, and we think of two very different men, comically struggling to live under the same roof.
This isn’t wrong, of course; but it’s also not the whole story. You forget the backdrop of male friendships and warmth; the grief of divorce that sets the story in motion; and, well, the two British sisters who find one man’s sad-sack, vulnerable state irresistible.
But the Rose’s production brings it all back, in a highly polished production directed by Lauren Mounsey. At the play’s outset, fastidious news writer Felix Ungar (David Montee) is a no-show at his friends’ weekly poker game. Felix’s sportswriter friend and poker host Oscar Madison (Guy Sanville) soon learns that not only is Felix’s marriage over, but Felix left his home saying that he was going to go kill himself.
Obviously, when Felix finally appears at Oscar’s, the friends all hold their breath, watching him for signs of self-harm. But as this initial threat passes, Oscar tells Felix he’s welcome to move in, despite the ways that Oscar’s slob bachelor lifestyle conflicts with Felix’s obsessively neat and controlling ways. And when Oscar makes a double date for them with a pair of flirty sisters living in the same building, Felix can’t keep himself from showing them pictures of his children and his soon-to-be-ex-wife – much to Oscar’s annoyance. The ill-fated date brings Oscar and Felix’s differences to a head, and the friends find themselves at a crossroads.
“Couple” premiered on Broadway in 1965 – starring no less than Walter Matthau and Art Carney, and directed by the great Mike Nichols – and while watching the play, you inevitably find yourself feeling a bit nostalgic. In our tech-obsessed, over-scheduled, twenty-first century lives, it’s hard to remember a time when we truly got to leave our work at work (characters’ occupations are mentioned in passing, but to Simon, they’re cursory), and when we could make time to get together with friends to do something as un-ambitious as playing cards one night a week. For this reason, the very atmosphere of the Rose’s production has the seductive power of a Siren’s song.
The down-side of the play’s “comfort food” quality is that some of the things that likely made the play an uproarious comedy in 1965 don’t quite have the same impact on a 2016 audience. Though we may chuckle when Felix dresses in an apron and a floppy chef’s hat to cook a London broil at home, and when he gets persnickety about coasters, the surprise/novelty of these kinds of moments is inevitably muted. Why? Because over the past 50 years, we have gotten to know and love many Felix-like male characters, and our notions of gender normative behavior have expanded considerably.
Regardless, Simon earned his place in the American theater canon for good reason: he’s funny, and he writes about flawed, all-too-human characters with genuine, warm-hearted affection. But his scripts also sometimes separate the pros from the amateurs in terms of execution; for it takes pros (like those featured in the Rose’s production) to really make comedic hay from Felix’s sinus-clearing honks, a British woman’s stuttered weeping, and Oscar’s difficulty deciphering a note left on his pillow (which will make you wonder if Simon named Felix for the purposes of cashing in on this one joke – but it’s a good one, so why not?).
Generally, as an ensemble, the actors play off each other beautifully. Under Mounsey’s direction, they avoid pushing any punchline too hard while also appearing to be having a ball, and the sense of fun is infectious. Tom Whalen, as hen-pecked Vinnie, preens and kvetches about when he has to leave and struts around Oscar’s apartment in clothes I would call “persnickety casual.” (Unabashed joy shines through costume designer Corey T. Collins’ work, too, dressing Whalen in knee high socks, long shorts, a cardigan, and a yellow bow tie.) Jim Porterfield, meanwhile, is endearing as Murray, the long-married cop who worries when Felix doesn’t show.
But any “Odd Couple” is only as good as its Felix and Oscar, and with Montee and Sanville, the Rose has a winning hand. Sanville bypasses the trap of playing Oscar too big and instead makes him a divorced man who’s content, if not completely happy, in his unfettered life; and Montee uses his size – he’s smaller than his poker buddies – to emphasize both the vulnerability and the strength Felix draws from his sense of himself. He realizes why he’s difficult to live with, but he also says, with no trace of surrender, “I am who I am.”
Reid G. Johnson designed the lighting for “Couple,” and set designer Bartley Bauer manages to give Oscar’s apartment added spatial depth by way of a hallway leading back to bedrooms, a kitchen entrance, and a bathroom door. Danna Segrest designed the props that fill Oscar’s sloppy-then-spotless apartment, while Whalen designed the sound.
The stakes of “The Odd Couple” may not seem as high as they once did – for better or for worse, we’ve grown accustomed to the painful transitions that accompany divorce, for men and for women – but the things the play has to say about friendship, and about compassion, are timeless. In the closing moments of the Rose’s production, Felix is about to leave Oscar’s apartment when Oscar gently straightens Felix’s tie – a gesture we might usually associate with a spouse – and through this quiet, subtle gesture, we know their friendship will endure this crisis, and that they will keep trying to take care of each other.
And if that doesn’t make your soul feel a little lighter, I’m not sure what would.
“The Odd Couple” plays at the Purple Rose Theatre, located at 137 Park in Chelsea, through March 26. For more information, visit 734-433-7673 or visit www.purplerosetheatre.org.
REVIEW BY JENN McKEE