One of the most successful American playwrights of modern times, Neil Simon had already written both the brilliant musical Little Me and romantic hit Barefoot in the Park before he solidified his fame as a theatre writer with The Odd Couple in 1965. Based roughly on the experiences of his brother (and former writing partner) Danny Simon and theatrical agent Roy Gerber, who had decided to cohabitate after both felt the post-divorce financial pinch. The pair’s incompatibility as roommates provided the perfect foundation for comedy and when Danny’s enthusiasm for the project flagged, Neil picked up the challenge, ultimately creating one of the most popular and revisited premises he ever created amongst a huge catalogue of work.
As a way to finish off what has been a positive 2016 program for the MTC and usher in the festive season, it’s a great choice that has been complemented by the casting of Mad As Hell cohorts Shaun Micallef and Francis Greenslade. Fully embracing its original 60s setting, Peter Houghton’s production is full of Laugh-In style wackiness and psychedelic stylings that ensure audiences understand this production has been designed to provide maximum levels of fun and visual delight – thanks in no small part to Christina Smith’s beautiful set and costume designs.
Sports writer and professional slob, Oscar Madison (Greenslade) and his quartet of poker buddies become concerned when their neurotic friend Felix Unger (Micallef) is late for their regular weekly game. A call to his wife uncovers that they have just separated after twelve years of marriage and he has sent her a telegram threatening suicide, so when Felix eventually arrives at the apartment, Oscar attempts to calm him by suggesting he move in. Neat-freak Felix gratefully accepts and immediately attempts to tidy up both the apartment and Oscar.
Micallef is impeccably styled and perfectly neurotic as Felix. Wound as tightly as a coil and goggling at Oscar’s slovenliness, Micallef lights up the stage upon his arrival and is entirely convincing in his MTC debut. His rapport with Greenslade is evidenced by the pair’s confident repartee and well-contrasted characterisations. Greenslade paints Oscar with wry grouchiness and complete sloth, although he does miss the opportunity to add some shades of lovability to the man. More grump than imp, at times it’s hard to feel sorry for Oscar in how Felix neuroses have upset his shabby way of living.
The one thing that does energize Oscar is the opportunity for action with his British neighbours, the sisters Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon (Christie Whelan Browne and Michala Banas), but when he doesn’t appreciate Felix’s culinary efforts and timings for entertaining the girls, the pair’s relationship troubles are brought into hilarious focus.
Whelan Browne and Banas are absolute delights as the chirpy and soft-hearted sisters, more than easily matching and raising the bar on Micallef’s significant physical comedy skills. If Micallef lights up the stage, these two ladies scorch it with flame-throwers of comedic magnetism.
If there’s a criticism to be levelled at this production it’s that the quality of the humour produced by Micallef, Banas and Whelan Browne in the second act isn’t quite matched in the first act, with its grinding exposition and focus largely on the boys and their poker playing friends (David Ross Paterson, Grant Piro, Hayden Spencer and Drew Tingwell). Greenslade’s irascibility as Oscar may be part cause of this, but more realistically, it’s a lack of balance in the direction from Houghton.
That said, supporting performances are all strong and push hard to make the most of all available comedy. Particularly Spencer as off-duty cop Murray provides a brilliantly characterful portrayal.
The Odd Couple splendidly tops off an excellent year for the MTC and makes for a thoroughly entertaining theatrical escape during the silly season.