What happens when a neatnik and a slob wind up sharing a New York apartment? It's a disaster waiting to happen, as playwright Neil Simon proved with his 1965 comedy “The Odd Couple.”
Thanks to the efforts of Art Carney and Walter Matthau on stage, followed by Jack Lemmon and Matthau on film and Tony Randall and Jack Klugman on television, America fell in love with the bickering Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison.
Nearly a half-century later, audiences still identify with the antics of Felix and Oscar, a pair of poker-playing buddies who seem to bring out the worst in each other. Bringing their story to life at Lyric at the Plaza this week are comic actors Jonathan Beck Reed (as Oscar) and Martin Burke (Felix). Ashley Wells directs the Lyric Theatre production.
“Because these characters are so iconic, audiences have a huge sense of who they are going in,” said Burke, an actor based in Austin, Texas, who makes his Lyric debut as Felix. “The guys bicker with each other, but their relationship comes from a real affectionate place.”
Master of humor
During a career that began in television and has spanned more than 60 years, “Doc” Simon proved to be a master at finding humor in everyday characters and situations. His comedies have explored a variety of topics, from marital conflict and infidelity to sibling rivalry and fear of aging.
Simon's first Broadway hit was “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, a play he later referred to as being “like the crude markings in a cave by the first prehistoric chronicler.” And while that play would occupy three years of his time, he completed five additional plays, three musicals and several screenplays before the decade ended.
He won his first Tony Award for “The Odd Couple.” The second came in 1985 for “Biloxi Blues” and the third in 1991 for “Lost in Yonkers.” The latter also earned Simon a Pulitzer Prize.
“I think ‘The Odd Couple' is one of Neil Simon's best early works,” said Reed, noting that in addition to being a story that is beautifully told, the play explores the ideals of friendship and compromise.
The setting is a Manhattan apartment where the slovenly Oscar, the fastidious Felix and four of their friends gather for a weekly poker game. On one of these occasions, the guys become worried when Felix is late.
“When he finally does show up, the audience feels like they know him,” said Reed, a popular local actor. “They've already heard about how Felix overreacts, how needy he is and how he annoys everyone at the poker game.”
While the sound of shuffling cards and poker chips provides a realistic setting for “The Odd Couple,” the challenge for the cast is finding a comfortable rhythm that allows for the witty exchanges between characters.
“Six guys sitting around a poker table is basically a static scene,” Reed said. “And lines such as ‘Ante up' or ‘You want a Coke?' are just texture. As actors, we have to make things interesting through behavior and the movements we create.”
The audience quickly discovers it's those behaviors that keep Oscar and Felix at odds with each other throughout the evening. Yet, despite their conflicting personalities, these two men genuinely care for each other.
“Neil Simon did a great job of splitting the atom (with Felix and Oscar), and people see themselves in both of them,” Reed said. “The things Oscar complains about are the things he most admires in Felix. The house being clean, for example.
“That helps you understand the relationship between them. And because they're like a family, you accept their idiosyncrasies and flaws. That's what makes this play so timeless.”