The Odd Couple

Neil Simon's rib-tickling examination of male friendship finds added relevance in the era of the ‘bromance’

The Odd Couple’s concept is so ingrained – and been so thoroughly riffed on – in pop culture, that it takes the prefix of ‘original’ to refer specifically to Neil Simon’s brash creations of messy extrovert Oscar Madison and neurotic sadsack Felix Unger, the mismatched duo who first stormed Broadway almost 50 years ago.

The story’s DNA of opposites stuck together in a love/hate relationship has been reinvented endlessly, in comic masterclasses (Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Peep Show) and cookie cutter romances, while the ‘bromance’ phenomenon owes Simon not so much a debt of gratitude as an actual cash payback given how many filmmakers have pilfered his original formula (see nearly every Judd Apatow movie).

Now director Guy Masterson – who also stars as Oscar – has brought a faithful production, right down to its 1960’s Manhattan flavour, to Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill. No stranger to the source material, Masterson also directed a 2005 version at Edinburgh Fringe starring Bill Bailey and Alan Davies. The production went on to become one of the Fringe’s fastest selling shows. No pressure then.

The play opens in Oscar’s slovenly bachelor pad, a once loving home now gone to pot since his wife and daughter abandoned the schlubby sportswriter to his own mess. The apartment – in which the entire play is set – is the story’s silent character, which undergoes it’s own Kafkaesque metamorphosis after the neurotic Felix (Marty Maguire) sets about making it habitable.

A weekly poker game featuring the pair and their buddies is in full swing, but Felix arrives uncharacteristically late, by which time the guys – Oscar, panicky cop Murray (Dave Johns), moany accountant Roy (David Calvitto), belligerent Speed (Nick Hardin) and laidback Vinnie (Paddy Jenkins) – discover the unfortunate clean freak has been kicked out by his wife.

He’s even gone so far as to swallow a bottle of 'little green pills', before throwing them up again ('Maybe they were vitamins,' Oscar quips, 'he could be the healthiest one here').

Oscar, himself a recent divorcee whose financial recklessness results in occasional threatening phone calls over child support payments, invites Felix to move into his large apartment. And the love-hate affair begins, as the diametrically opposed pair begin to drive each other bonkers.

Masterson’s strong cast clearly relish Simon’s whipsmart dialogue, but the play struggles a little to warm up in an oddly short first act. However the remaining two thirds – featuring some bravura comic set pieces and the introduction of potential love interests, the Pigeon Sisters (Nuala McKeever and Claire Connor) – fully demonstrate why The Odd Couple remains Simon’s most loved, and crowd pleasing work.

The acting is strong across the board, with the supporting players offered ample opportunity to fire off at least a couple of zinger lines thanks to Simon’s generosity. But this is still Oscar and Felix’s show, with Masterson and Maguire pitching the pair’s increasing disharmony with ideal comic fervour.

But it is their treatment of each character’s barely concealed sadness that would really gain Simon’s approval. Oscar and Felix can easily be caricatured into grumpy slob or hysterical ninny respectively, but the comedy only really sings if both characters are acknowledged as lonely opposites seeking equilibrium in each other.

The couple’s quasi-marital relationship may be an obvious joke, but it’s hard to question their genuine love for each other, even if it results in the odd smashed plate of spaghetti or a burnt London Broil.

'If you can go through life without feeling pain, you probably haven’t been born yet,' wrote Simon in his memoir in 1999, and it’s this feeling of hopeful despondency that gives his work – and this production – a beating, hilarious heart.

The Odd Couple runs at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from Tuesday, October 23 until Saturday, October 27.