Oscar Madison answers the phone by identifying himself as “divorced, broke, sloppy.” He’s nothing if not honest: his apartment is a whirlwind of discarded clothing, Chinese delivery boxes, banana peels and other detritus of his unhappy, if gamely approached, new single life. Enter his best friend, Felix Unger, now also headed toward divorce and in need of a place to stay — unhappy, hypersensitive and neurotically neat.
Chances are you’re already familiar with the simple set-up behind Neil Simon’s 1965 play “The Odd Couple,” on stage at Fabrefaction Theatre through March 10. It’s one of the most successful and frequently revived comedies ever. (In the program notes for the current production, director Veronika Duerr recounts a charming story about her parents having seen the original Swedish and German productions of “Omaka Paar” and “Ein Seltsames Paar” in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
It was a hit movie in 1968, and the premise became the basis for seemingly a zillion television sitcoms in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including two live-action shows and a cartoon directly based on the main characters in “The Odd Couple.” “Comically incompatible types who live together” might be identified as the prototypical situation of “situation comedy.”
Fabrefaction rolls out this warhorse with energy and panache, and Dave Lauby and John Stanier are smartly cast as Felix and Oscar. Lauby gives Felix’s fussiness a comically careworn and exhausted aspect: he knows he drives others crazy, but he’s helpless to stop it. Stanier’s Oscar is seemingly the polar opposite — robust, plain-spoken and independent — but in his own way he’s as difficult and needy as Felix.
Even if the tried-and-true situation doesn’t come across as fresh, it’s clear why the play has been such a stalwart for so long. The humor throughout is still charming, appealing, fleet and inoffensive (although the overarching assumption that men on their own, without wives, are inherently funny is starting to show its age). It’s resilient if not totally timeless. Costume designer Mariel “Ren” Treubig and actresses Caleigh Allen and Erin Burnett obviously had some fun giving the “babes next door” characters an appropriately 1960s “Austin Powers”-like look and appeal.
I was surprised by Rob Hadaway’s set design for Fabrefaction’s black-box space and at first thought he’d goofed in making Oscar’s Manhattan apartment so spacious. In his clever design, the audience surrounds the large living-dining room on three sides. But there are actually several references in the script to how huge the place is: Oscar even jokes that he knows all the shortcuts through its rooms. Oscar and Felix mention that they’re renting this big place for a whopping $240 a month, which they split down the middle to pay $120 each. When America was young, kids . . .
During the show, it also occurred to me how little would have to be changed so that the odd couple could be two women, thereby opening up these famous roles to comic actresses. There’s nothing new under the sun, or at least nothing new about “The Odd Couple.” I looked it up, and Simon wrote an updated version that ran on Broadway in the mid-1980s starring Rita Moreno as the Oscar character and Sally Struthers as the female Felix. The poker game became “Trivial Pursuit” and the “babes next door,” the Pigeon sisters, became the Costazuela brothers. Easy as that.
So, while there are few surprises awaiting viewers of “The Odd Couple,” it proves time and again that it’s a cultural survivor. Felix’s and Oscar’s unhappy foray into cohabitation still makes for a pleasant evening out and likely will for a long time.