Reclaiming Neil Simon

(VINNIE opens the door. FELIX UNGAR is there. He’s about forty-four. His clothes are rumpled as if he had slept in them, and he needs a shave. Although he tries to act matter-of-fact, there is an air of great tension and nervousness about him.)

A few months back, Broadway’s own Producers Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane announced their intentions to star in The Odd Couple. I seethed: The Frogs and The Foreigner bring the pair only a fraction of the adulation they received from The Producers, so they retreat to a rusted Neil Simon play? Cowards!

Then last week, the production overtly descended into sitcommery as the brother from Everybody Loves Raymond signed on for the role of Murray the Cop. What a dependable, unimaginative choice.

And what The Odd Couple desperately needs is a needle-to-the-heart jolt of imagination. Neil Simon has far too many plays that invite the audience to chuckle at angsty characters. They get themselves all worked up, but to us it’s no big deal. Well it should be.

Neil Simon needs menace. Felix makes his entrance after a series of suicide attempts. And as shown above, he’s unshaven. Unshaven! Try to imagine an unshaven Tony Randall! Even as a decayed old actor in Arturo Ui he remained without stubble. And you can bet that Oscar, Simon, Lane, Broderick, and all their audiences wouldn’t believe for a minute that Felix Unger would off himself.

That certainty has got to go. Neil Simon has been running lukewarm for too long, and if the author wants to flirt with existential angst he had better be prepared to run with it into some uncomfortable places. If there’s anything worth exploring in The Odd Couple, it won’t be found by using big-name Broadway casts. We must use a different approach.

So my theatrical peers, we must reclaim Neil Simon. If there’s a human heart beating in The Odd Couple it needs to be exposed to light. Felix isn’t just upset, he’s genuinely unbalanced. His fussy behavior isn’t a source of comedy, it masks a life he can’t begin to keep together. Banish Jack Lemmon from your mind; replace him with Benicio del Toro.

The Felix I see is in the text, but I can’t guarantee he’s supported by the text. Gallons of syrup have been poured over Felix’s raw pain and confusion. The Odd Couple may be too soggy to save.

But shouldn’t we try and find out? Get your theatre group together! Submit a Fringe application! Hire Ivo van Hove! If Simon’s play can’t pull its own weight, if it can only exist in sitcom-inspired Broadway productions or community theatre revivals, then it isn’t great theatre. If there’s nothing honest in Felix’s sorrow, then there’s nothing to recommend in The Odd Couple beyond the theme song.

Can two divorced styles of theatre share a playwright without driving each other crazy? Let’s grab hold of him and see.

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4 Responses to Reclaiming Neil Simon

  1. Jason Grote says:

    I know! How about doing the play with an all-male cast!

    No, wait, never mind.

  2. Mike Mariano says:

    Don’t start calling transvestites yet, Jason: van Hove has you covered. His former Blanche and Stella—Elizabeth Marvel and Jenny Bacon—will take on the lone female roles of the Pigeon Sisters. And instead of fixating on the bath, perhaps they can all join Oscar in throwing linguini across the stage.

  3. dan says:

    I would go see this production, and I am interested in reading some of your literature.

  4. Pingback: Now It’s Garbage! | Mike Mariano

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