One of theatre’s most famous duos is back on stage at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, the lead characters in Neil Simon’s highly successful comedy The Odd Couple, have returned to embody the meaning of, “Honey, I love you, but…”
The familiar story is about best friends with diametrically opposite personalities who decide to share an apartment after each of their marriages has fallen apart. Felix is an obsessive neat freak who can’t take time out from anxiety to enjoy life. Oscar relishes pleasure and is messy and careless par excellence.
This is the third time the show has graced Soulpepper’s playbill. Apparently, out of approximately160 plays produced by Soulpepper, it is the sixth most popular production. The Odd Couple still delights audiences and makes them laugh. This is despite the social-political changes that have occurred over the last 50 years and the degree to which tastes have changed. Why?
Artistic director Albert Schultz who continues to perform in company productions despite his crammed schedule, places the answer at the feet of Simon. Schultz considers him, “A gifted writer who has penned some of the greatest comedies of the 20th century.” Schultz claims that not only is Simon’s ability to write a funny line unrivalled but also that he is a master of comedic structure. In The Odd Couple, Simon drops the audience into a play about marriage that isn’t a marriage play. Schultz says.
“Everyone who comes to the show can relate to the situation because they’ve experienced the challenges, the frustrations and the hilarities of being in a relationship.”
In this work, Felix represents “the feminine” part of the relationship painted in broad, over-the-top strokes. Oscar is the irresponsible “masculine” aspect of the couple. “The twist”, says Schultz, “is that these roles are played by two heterosexual males.”
Simon brings audience members to a familiar context, a relationship, but wacko clowns inhabit it. The joke is that these characters are an aspect of each of us. Who hasn’t at some point been foolish or over-the-top ?
OK, so Simon is brilliant at creating a world that the audience will buy into, he deftly creates believable characters and funny lines pour out of his finger tips, but isn’t the play ultimately froth, mere entertainment?
“Yes, this play is about coming to the theatre to be entertained,” Schultz says. “There is a need and a place for theatre of that kind.”
Schultz does not take the art of entertaining lightly. To understand why, perhaps one has to recall that “to entertain” has more than one meaning. One could say that a talented comedy writer is like a perceptive host who is able to make a guest who has spilled wine on the carpet feel comfortable.
His view is that Simon has been tarred by the brush of his own success. “There are those who say he can’t be a good writer if he is that popular, but I say he is a great writer.
“The Odd Couple is about two people who are very different from one another but profoundly care about each other. They are people in deep crisis who have found each other and endeavour to find a way to maintain their friendship,” he says. “This is what helps them move through their crisis.”
In the current production, the fine cast – led by Schultz as Oscar and Diego Matamoros as Felix – use their talents to reveal the various aspects of the characters and the many dimensions of Simon’s writing. When treated with respect, The Odd Couple is perennially funny and entertaining because it vividly shows the crazy ways people deal with sorrow.
The Odd Couple runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District until June 11. Fore more info, click here.