Tony Randall and Jack Klugman first played Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison in the early 1970s TV series which spun off from the film version (famously starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) of Neil Simon's play. They have since reprised the roles in several American and international theatrical tours, all directed by Harvey Medlinsky, who is also at the helm of this production. In other words, you are unlikely to see a more finely turned version of The Odd Couple on any stage anywhere. This, however, is not quite the unambiguous accolade it may at first seem.
Randall, Klugman and director Medlinsky all plainly know the play inside out. Every comic twist of the story – finicky, neurotic Felix moves in after his marital separation with slobbish divorced sports-writer Oscar, driving him to distraction – is precisely played, every tic and sight-gag deployed with a precision born of long experience. Perhaps too long: performances and lines are pitched on a broad, showy level which inspires warm admiration but little engagement with the play, still less with its possible subtexts. The oddity of the couple's surrogate marriage, with Felix complaining that Oscar's late arrival home has spoiled the dinner joint, avoids all sexual implications with a quiet determination. Randall and Klugman, at 76 and 74 respectively, are at least 20 years too old for their roles, but their consummate performances mean that this never obtrudes on our awareness... never, that is, until a double-date with a pair of giggling English sisters from the apartment upstairs, who are young enough to be their daughters by a second or even third marriage.
Oscar's Friday-night poker school is peopled by English supporting actors (in ascending order of culpability, Henry McGee, Trevor Bannister and a highly unlikely Rodney Bewes) who at times threaten to turn their scenes into Ray Cooney with a faltering transatlantic twang. Felix's arsenal of physical and vocal quirks – from the bursitis which makes it impossible for him to throw objects in anger to the "moose calls" to clear his inner-ear blockages – is played by Randall with a kind of elegant ostentation. Only Klugman, despite the surgical removal of a vocal cord which gives his voice the quality of several tons of gravel, delivers his lines with naturalistic cadences.
This production is a cash cow for Tony Randall's laudable non-profit-making National Actors Theatre, and there is no reason why he should not exploit the play which he and Klugman have made their own. Those who wish to see an authoritative but unchallenging version of a modern American comedy classic could not put themselves in safer hands.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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