Oscar Madison, hot slob? OK, let's go with that.
In Dallas Theater Center's production of Neil Simon's ever-delightful comedy The Odd Couple, director Kevin Moriarty has cast handsome New York actor J. Anthony Crane as the messy one. Smart twist. We go in expecting a Walter Matthau or a Jack Klugman and we get a Jon Hamm.
How good-looking is he? Let's just say that unlike roommate Felix Ungar, if you were this Oscar Madison's co-habitee, you probably wouldn't mind all that much if he never washed the dishes. Because he is a dish. That Crane is also a damn fine comic actor is icing on the beefcake. Close your eyes and he sounds a little like Matthau when he says, "Murray, I'll give you two hundred dollars for your gun." But if you do that, you won't be able to see him. And you'll enjoy looking at J. Anthony Crane, even with that backward baseball cap on his head and his square jaws dusted by an all-day five o'clock shadow.
His Oscar is the yin — looks and housework-wise — to the yang of actor Michael Mastro's Felix. Mastro, also a New York import for this show, is a balding teddy bear with a hint of a lisp. He's funny making those honking, wheezing sounds that Felix makes when his ears are stopped up. He's funny whipping around Oscar's living room, plucking dirty socks and underwear off the furniture. As is every finely tuned Felix, and that includes the original, Art Carney, the film's Jack Lemmon and the TV series' Tony Randall, Mastro's Felix Ungar is ferociously and hilariously neurotic, layering suicidal thoughts on top of hypochondria and an obsessive, compulsive need to see everything done his way. (In the play, his wife's divorcing him for, among other insults, always recooking her dinners.)
Today's advanced pharmacology might fix Felix with the right combination of pills. Thank goodness those drugs weren't available in the mid-1960s when Simon was writing the play, which was inspired, depending on whose version you believe, by Simon's brother Danny's post-divorce living arrangements or the real-life neuroses of Mel Brooks. Wherever it came from, there's nothing phony in The Odd Couple about how men act around each other. It all feels authentic. New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr called it "so much interior truth" in his review of the first Broadway production in 1965. Guys as guys, doing what guys do.
The opening scene with Oscar and his buddies crabbing and kibitzing over their regular Friday night poker game falls so naturally on the ear we could be eavesdropping from next door. There's Murray the cop (John Taylor Phillips) dealing cards so gingerly he's like a kid playing his first round of Go Fish. And henpecked Vinnie (Chamblee Ferguson) announcing every two minutes in a nasally whine that he has to leave precisely at midnight in order to catch a morning plane for a family vacation. And Roy (Hassan El-Amin) and Speed (Lee Trull, so good at acting exasperated), over-smoking in frustration that they can't get through a full hand of poker before another interruption. And Oscar, the host with the most underdeveloped sense of how to throw a party, offering them sandwiches, green or brown: "It's either very new cheese or very old meat." One of the greatest punchlines ever uttered in American theater.
By the time Felix shows up, we've been fully versed about what to expect. He's a nutcase but they love him and he never misses a poker night. Then comes word that Felix's marriage is kaput and his wife's kicked him to the curb. The guys worry the way you'd want your friends to, but with better jokes. When Oscar hears that Felix has sent wife Frances a "suicide telegram," he quips, "She still had to tip the guy a quarter."
In staggers weeping Felix and the boys fall all over themselves making sure he's not headed for an open window or swallowing razor blades alone in the bathroom. Their concern as a group is sweet, even as they Keystone Kop their version of an intervention.
By the second act, Oscar and Felix have fallen into comfortable rhythms as roommates. Oscar's eight-room Upper West Side apartment has been transformed from reeking pigsty to gleaming showplace, thanks to Felix. (The sprawling L-shaped set by scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee features parquet floors, gorgeous crown moldings and a view from the dining room windows into the kitchen beyond.) Oscar's enjoying home-cooked meals and for once his alimony payments are on time, courtesy of Felix's penny-strangling ways. When Felix mentions that his half of the rent is $120 a month, join the audience in a collective groan of nostalgia for 1965 Manhattan real estate prices.
But well-toasted sandwiches and Dutch Cleanser-ed tubs are not Oscar's ideas of fulfillment, so he invites two pretty girls from upstairs down for a double date. They are the Pigeon sisters, a couple of flighty British birds. Cecily (Tiffany Hobbs) is a widow; Gwendolyn (Mia Antoinette Crowe), a divorcee. Their names pay tribute to characters in The Importance of Being Earnest, another nice touch by Neil.
The dinner party scene, with Felix dithering about his ruined London broil, is the only weak part of the play, and Moriarty hasn't helped it by casting young African-American actresses as the Pigeon sisters. That takes us momentarily out of The Odd Couple and into Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Moriarty also has ignored Simon's obvious clue that the Pigeons are funniest when they laugh and coo like dizzy little cuckoo birds. (Nobody did that better than Carole Shelley and Geraldine McEwan, who played the girls in the 1968 movie version.) Hobbs and Crowe, employing awful English accents, don't chirp like birds; they bray like donkeys. That gets laughs, but for the wrong reasons.
The short third act, the break-up between Felix and Oscar, makes us forget that bit of dissonance, however. Mastro and Crane perform a silent pas de deux of aggression that has Oscar Godzilla-stomping sofa cushions and Felix crop-dusting with air freshener. Brilliantly written and brilliantly acted.
The Odd Couple's central theme is how hard it is for human beings to change. Moriarty's done well by changing up the usual image of Oscar Madison and making him Don Draper in a dirty shirt. And by keeping the play in its original period, we now can see how we've changed into a culture of continuous, obsessive self-improvement. These days, Felix would swear off gluten, get hair plugs and hire a life coach to sort him out. Oscar would end up addicted to gambling and computer porn. Neil Simon wrote them happier endings. In 1965 all it took was a little help from your friends.