Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Odd Couple by Neil Simon

This is the fourth and final post on the plays we saw at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this year. If you missed them:

My wife introduced me to The Odd Couple a number of years ago. I believe we watched the classic Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau movie first. Later, we saw a local production, which was rendered even more amusing by the fact that the two leads were played by local actors that I had worked with professionally back in my young and single days when I could afford to kill a week working for peanuts playing in the pit orchestra. The two of them fit the characters remarkably well in real life.

I suspect that the story is familiar enough, so I won’t belabor it. Felix Ungar is dumped by his wife, and ends up crashing at his friend Oscar Madison’s apartment. Oscar hosts a guys’ poker night at which Felix is a regular. Oscar is also a horrible slob, and the apartment is a (carefully constructed by the stage crew) disaster. Felix, on the other hand, is a neatnik beyond the limits of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As one might imagine, the two of them living together have a bit of, shall we say, friction. The story, despite the fact that some references have become dated, remains fresh because most of us have a bit of either Felix or Oscar about us. (For the record, I am Felix, and my wife leans a bit Oscar. She agrees with me on this assessment, in case you wondered.)

The Utah Shakespeare Festival decided to put an interesting twist on the play with a challenging casting decision.

The two leads would have to learn - and play - both parts. Better yet, rather than just alternating, they did a three-night rotation. Actor A would play one part the first night, and the other part the next, but on the third night, the audience would vote on who should play which part. And the actors would have to put on their costumes and do it. I will have to see if I can get some inside information at the end of the season on which version won the popular vote.

We attended opening night, which meant that Brian Vaughn played Oscar, while David Ivers played Felix. My wife’s girlfriend (with whom she has attended the last three years of festivals) was a student of one of the festival mucky-mucks, so they get inside information about stuff (and some fan photos with the actors…) Anyway, the sources says that Ivers is Felix in real life, while Vaughn is Oscar. So we got it played “straight,” so to speak. The funny thing is, it seemed so perfectly natural that way, but the pictures (and reviews) indicate that the opposite was also thoroughly convincing. In a perfect world, we would have seen it twice so we could see both versions. Oh well. 

 Brian Vaughn (Oscar) and David Ivers (Felix)
This is the version we saw.

Speaking of casting, as is usually the case at the Festival, actors are expected to perform multiple plays. That means that the parts of Murray and Roy (two of the poker buddies) were played by “Cassius” (Rex Young) and “Julius Caesar” (Paul Michael Sandberg). We saw Julius Caesar in the afternoon, then The Odd Couple in the evening, so the dissonance was a bit jarring. Not in a bad way, though. Just impressive that they could immerse themselves in such different parts and flip the switch that fast. 

 David Ivers (Oscar) and Brian Vaughn (Felix)

The kids liked this play well enough, and got a reasonable number of the jokes. Certainly a messy house and a compulsive cleaner were familiar enough. The older kids understood the verbal repartee better than the younger ones. They might even have appreciated the seriously awkward moments.

Perhaps the reason the play still rings true is that it carries an important truth. Wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. Our personalities and faults, our tics and obsessions. No matter how hard or far we ride, we can’t outrun what we feel inside. (To paraphrase Clint Black.) Felix’s problem isn’t his marriage, but himself. And the same with Oscar. By pairing up with a guy pal instead of a woman, they both have to confront the difficult sides of their own personalities.

And likewise, each finds that it is pretty hopeless to try to change the other - at least as much as they want to. Oscar does indeed become less of a slob by the end, and Felix might eventually loosen up a bit. But they are still, and always will be, Felix and Oscar. Not a great match, perhaps, for their own sanity. But an endless source of amusement to audiences over fifty years after it premiered.


This is probably the last live play I will see this year, given the other things on my schedule. But it has been a wonderful run. By my count, this is a total of nine for me (my wife saw even more), which is the most I have ever attended in one year. Even better, seven of those were with the kids, and the other two were just with my wife, so I got to share the experience with people dear to my heart.

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