***½ stars out of 4
Neil Simon is a very funny guy. His comedy about two middle-age divorced men living together in New York City was a smash on Broadway, spawned both a hit movie and a long-running TV series, and still tickles the funny bone. Never was a better marriage made in humor heaven than the union of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Now it’s onstage again at DC’s Theater J.
Oscar (Rick Foucheux) is a divorced sportswriter living in slovenly splendor in an eight-room apartment, hosting a weekly poker game for his oddball buddies, and hoping to get lucky with one of the two loony British sisters who live in his building. When Felix (J. Fred Shiffman), one of the poker pals, is tossed out by his wife, Oscar invites him to share the apartment.
Faster than you can say “Lysol,” Felix transforms the place into a clutter-and germ-free environment with coasters to protect the poker table from wet glasses and an air-cleaning machine to get rid of Oscar’s cigar smoke. Felix cooks. Felix cleans. Felix keeps track of every penny of their expenses. The closest thing Felix has to a hobby is his hypochondria. Felix honks to clear his sinuses and moans endlessly about his various other ailments.
It’s clear from the outset that Felix will drive Oscar crazy. The audience watches with fascinated delight as the two personalities rub up against each other, waiting for the inevitable spark that ignites the comic conflagration.
Foucheux and Shiffman have a wonderful time contrasting their unrepentant-slob and aggrieved-neatnick characters. Shiffman gets to show off his gift for physical comedy—he cringes, he pouts, and he puffs with outrage. Foucheux gets a showcase for his comic delivery—and some of the best lines. When he confronts Felix with a list of his most offensive acts, Foucheux barks, “You leave notes on my pillow. ‘We’re out of cornflakes. F.U.’ It took me ten minutes to figure out that F.U. was Felix Unger.”
The poker buddies, particularly Delaney Williams as Murray the cop, add to the merriment. Simon is essentially a gag writer, and the punch lines just keep coming.
Director Jerry Whiddon gives even the minor players room to shine while keeping the action moving. Set designer Misha Kachman creates a 1960s New York apartment with the right mix of midcentury functional furniture, window air-conditioning units, and classic black telephones. Even Felix’s vacuum cleaner is a perfect accessory.
The Odd Couple is a period piece, and Simon’s sexist ’60s attitude is less politically incorrect than hopelessly dated. But the writing is so good that I forgive him his trespasses. Felix and Oscar are alive and well and living on 16th Street. Long may they bicker.
At Theater J through November 28. Tickets ($15 to $45) are available here.