Felix and Oscar, the odd couple of Purple Rose’s current production, began their life on Broadway in 1965 and continued their friendship on TV for five years in the 1970s, gradually acquiring cultural baggage that was not part of the original intention. By the time the series ended in 1975, the Stonewall Riots, gay pride, and identity politics had buffeted old Oscar and Felix around very badly. They had become synonymous with deep-seated but unexamined homosexual longings of a previous unenlightened generation. There they were, week after week, trying so desperately to get it on with various women thrown in their paths, when we all knew they were a couple of old queens who hadn’t yet gotten the memo to come out of the closet.
“SAY WHAT?”–this Purple Rose production (through March 26) says loudly–“Let’s go back and reexamine the source material.” Purple Rose essentially did the same thing very successfully last year with Steel Magnolias, rescuing a play that had gotten hijacked by an overblown movie.
Neil Simon generally had some play or other running on Broadway for the latter half of the twentieth century–and looking back, he got a surprising amount of mileage out of putting a couple of mismatched people in one Manhattan apartment. The Odd Couple all takes place in Oscar’s apartment, much of it during his weekly poker game. Felix’s wife has thrown him out because he can’t stop cleaning. Oscar is recently divorced and won’t start cleaning. And voila: a mathematically perfect zero-sum formula for domestic harmony is conceived, waiting to go awry in Act II.
Simon, surfacing after some decades of being a little out of fashion, reveals himself to be a solid crafter of plays. The center holds, and even his more topical one-liners at least sometimes hit with a rifle crack. This is a play that genuinely gives itself over to the talent of experienced, middle-aged actors. The six poker buddies are at once a believable unit and a catalog of identifiable typologies. Carrying the most weight, of course, are the iconic Felix (David Montee) and Oscar (Guy Sanville), who both wear the roles well, though Sanville would probably be a little more comfortable in his skin without the wig and too-small porkpie hat. Particularly adept at teasing out the line between comedy and farce are Tom Whalen as Vinnie (somewhere to the east of Felix on the OCD meter) and Jim Porterfield as Murray (somewhere to the west of Oscar as a man’s man, whose wife is so fecund he can’t remember from week to week if she’s pregnant or not). Like a surprise filling in a cupcake’s center, in march the delightful Pidgeon sisters, two secretaries from another apartment, played by Michelle Mountain and Rhiannon Ragland. In their full early-Sixties beehive-bubble-headed splendor and their Cockney accents, they seem like they’re from another planet, a weirdly delicious one.