by Catherine Blanch.
The Odd Couple, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as Oscar Madison and Felix Unger respectively, was one of the comedy masterpieces of the 20th century. Written by Neil Simon, it’s the classic tale of opposites attracting: Oscar is lazy and slovenly, while Felix is tidy and neurotic. Both facing divorce, the two men are thrown together to start again – whether they like it or not.
Author Neil Simon has given this tale another reshuffle to bring it into the new millennium, yet still remaining oddly familiar. We speak with Director Brian Knott about the show’s Adelaide Rep season, suggesting that it’s rare for an original author to create a re-make of their own show.
“Neil Simon has recycled this play and recycled this play,” he begins. “There was even a cartoon version starring a dog and a cat, a female couple, a black couple, and so it goes on. This version is closely based on the most recent TV series starring Friends’ Matthew Perry.
“Basically it’s the same play… Neil Simon must have made a mint out of this one show!” Brian jests. “It’s been modified slightly, replacing the two rather annoying twittering pigeon sisters who were English with two Spanish sisters who are in NY for the first time. Some of the humour then comes from them misunderstanding the language, but the whole play is just pure fun and nonsense. I’ve said many times that there is a serious lack of anything serious in this play [laughs]. It’s just a load of jokes.
“By coincidence, The Odd Couple II was on TV a couple of days ago. Simon has updated it so that now these guys have been away from each other for about 17 years and are brought back together again for the marriage of the son and daughter. Yet, he’s still using the same situations even though it’s a completely different storyline; he’s found a winning formula and found no reason to change it really [more laughs] – except for the addition of mobile phones.”
For those not aware of the life of Oscar and Felix, this is a story about complete opposites. They are two good friends, but when they have to spend a lot of time together they suddenly discover those differences a little more difficult to ignore.
“I think in this version, Neil Simon has probably softened the differences a little bit, because they are slightly younger people this time,” Brian says. “They are a group of guys that get along well with each other and they all just accept Felix for who he is. Felix doesn’t understand why anyone sees his attention to detail and fussiness as unusual; any criticisms just fly over his head, and of course, Oscar is constantly teasing him but Felix just doesn’t get it.
“Oscar, on the other hand, is living in an apartment after his wife left him, he’s just an average guy, why should he bother being too fussy? When the guys come around for cards it’s a chance for them to get away from their wives, although they do notice that sometimes the milk in Oscar’s fringe seems to be standing up, even though it’s not in a carton [laughs].
“Felix turns up and is invited to stay after being thrown out by his wife, and he can’t help himself to have to tidy up,” he adds. “It’s just these two complete opposites who are good friends. It reminds me of friends who go on an overseas trip for the first time and come back deciding that they’ll never do that again [laughs]! Friendship is a strange thing but it’s put to the test when Felix moves in.”
Tell us Peter Rossi and Patrick Gibson. What is it about these particular two that attracted you to give them the lead roles?
“Well, I think you said the right word for a start; they’re both rather attractive,” Brian laughs. “When you’ve got two people on stage that are key to this play, it helps if they’re easy to look at [chuckles]. They’re nice people and I think you get that idea when you see them perform. Peter, who plays Oscar, comes across as a very energetic cheerful guy. He’s a likable guy and you can see him inviting his friends around for a card game and being a good friend to Felix.
“Patrick is a little quieter so it wasn’t too hard to push him to be finicky and fussy. They were both suited for the parts, but there are enough similarities and differences between them you could almost swap roles and they would still make it work. I’ve noticed that when they finally get into an argument together on stage, the scene jumps to life! They throw themselves into it which is great fun to watch.”
How do the ‘sexy’ Spanish sisters fit within the play?
“Oscar gets trapped in the lift with them and that’s how they meet,” Brain says. “He comes back to Felix and tells him that they both need to get out more and that Felix especially needs to meet some women. Felix is still muttering about his wife and children at home, but Oscar takes the women up on their offer to come up for dinner. They both go, but Felix, being Felix, goes to a huge amount of bother to get ready and Oscar wants to get the girls up there, have a few drinks and see what happens next.
“The girls start to take pity on Felix, who has completely destroyed the evening as far as Oscar is concerned.”
So, this is not a musical, is it?
“No, I think that’s the only thing Neil Simon hasn’t done with it yet – made it a musical or put it on ice [laughs]!”
For those that have and those that haven’t, do you think they’ll all enjoy this version of Oscar & Felix and maybe find common ground with some of their own friendships?
“We’ve taken this play and looked at it with fresh eyes and have hopefully created something new with this production,” Brian says. “But we have also run with the TV series take on having younger men in their 30s and 40s.
“The other thing I like about this play is that, although they are American, I see an echo of that Australian habit of slinging off at your mates… like calling your friend an old bastard and giving them a punch on the arm. If you did that to a stranger in a pub, there’d be a brawl. But if you did it with your mates, they’d just do it back to you… it’s’ a show of affection.
“In this show, there’s not so much a thump on the arm as they are dealt caustic comments and laugh lines. The jokes just keep on flying, and a lot of them are aimed at Felix’s fussiness – which Oscar keeps overstating all the time. But Felix is immune to a slight comment, and spends most of the tie not believing that Oscar really means it.
“It’s going to be a great night out,” Brian concludes. “Have a drink, come with a couple of friends, have another drink and then come in and laugh!”
Oscar & Felix: A New Look At The Odd Couple performs at Arts Theatre from 8pm on Thu 1 Sep until Sat 10 Sep. Matinee session from 2pm on Sat 10 Sep.
Book at TryBooking.com or 8212 5777. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.
Image by Norm Caddick