Shaun Micallef and Francis Greenslade play one of comedy's greatest duos in this remount of Neil Simon's 1965 classic
Some ideas are so ingrained in the popular imagination they feel like they’ve been around forever. Uptight clean freak Felix Ungar having to move in with his best mate and confirmed slob Oscar Madison is one of them. Iteration after iteration has mined this basic comic scenario – from the 1968 film and subsequent TV show, to a 1985 “female” version – and now Melbourne Theatre Company return to the source with Neil Simon’s original 1965 play The Odd Couple.
Director Peter Houghton goes out of his way to indicate to the audience that it is watching a period piece: the curtain is decorated with a large title card straight out of a ’60s television show; scene changes are punctuated by otherwise pointless period dancing; and even the lighting tends towards the psychedelic at times. It’s all purely cosmetic, but does betray a certain anxiety about the play’s relevance in a modern context.
Simon’s play is simply but expertly structured. Oscar (Francis Greenslade) is a boorish, unkempt divorcee whose lifestyle is revolutionised by the addition of a new roommate, his obsessive, neurotic best friend Felix (Shaun Micallef). Felix’s marriage is also ending, and it soon becomes apparent why neither man would make a satisfactory life partner. Three poker games – at the beginning, middle and end of the play – perfectly demonstrate the character development and narrative arc. One is slovenly, with chip packets and beer sprayed about; the next is prissy, all coasters and gourmet sandwiches; and the final is a happy medium between the two.
There are no real surprises, but then the pleasure of this sort of thing comes from watching the predictable unfold like a perfectly designed Christmas window. Simon virtually invented the sitcom with this play, and its reliance on zingers and exaggerations means there are always plenty of laughs. Unfortunately, Houghton and his cast fail to bring any sense of credibility or depth to the characters, so the enthusiasm soon starts to wane.
The raison d’être of this production is also its chief problem: celebrity casting. Micallef is a brilliant and whacky comic, gangly and bug-eyed as he bounds about the stage, but is utterly incapable of making Felix feel like a real person. Greenslade fairs slightly better in this regard, but doesn’t have the gruff presence or explosive power the role requires. The effect is like watching two mates improvising lazily between takes on the set of their ABC show Mad as Hell.
As the two giggly sisters who live upstairs, Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon – the names are a desperate and meaningless reference to Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest – Michala Banas and Christie Whelan Browne bring heaps of energy and charm, but are also rather cartoonish and reductive. As Oscar’s poker buddies, Hayden Spencer and Grant Piro stand out, the latter the only actor in the show who nails the accent.
Christina Smith’s set design initially feels rather shallow and static, but does come into its own in a scene of frantic physical comedy involving a chase around the apartment. Matt Scott’s lighting design has a bright warmth for the most part, and does a lot of heavy lifting in the transitions.
Melbourne Theatre Company always likes to end the year with a feel-good comedy, and in this current climate that is certainly an aim worth backing. It’s even something of a relief to see them settle on a safe choice, given Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But The Odd Couple ultimately proves too safe, and the production has virtually no desire to mine the sadness and the poignancy that lies just under the surface. People will flock to it, and will no doubt get a satisfying quota of laughs out of it, but its cosy domestic view has little to offer a contemporary world mired in uncertainty and confusion.