By 1985, Neil Simon was America’s most popular playwright, with two Tony Awards in his pocket and two more in his future. He had embarked on the autobiographic trilogy of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” and proved his work could be deep as well as broad.
So people wondered why he’d re-do “The Odd Couple” in a version that switched the characters’ genders. Was it a lazy knockoff of a comic masterpiece? Was he appeasing critics who’d said his female roles were weak and/or cashing in on the feminist movement?
The answers were no, no and no. He was essentially writing a new play, which preserved classic lines and situations while taking the story in different directions. He wasn’t remaking characters so much as reimagining them. If the female version wasn’t as funny as the original, it had virtues of its own that Theatre Charlotte’s production reveals.
The spine of the play didn’t change. Florence (nee Felix) has been dumped by her husband and come to live with Olive (nee Oscar), a slob who’s at odds with her obsessively neat new roommate. The all-male poker game has become an all-female Trivial Pursuit match. Olive arranges a romantic evening not with the “coo-coo” Pigeon sisters (who were clunky stereotypes in 1965) but the malapropistic Costazuela brothers of Spain. (Vito Abate and Hank West, nearly unrecognizable under bizarre wigs, mangle language hilariously.)
But while a prissy, apron-wearing Felix was inherently funny, a prissy, apron-wearing Florence is not. He was an aberration; she’s merely an exaggeration of countless women we’ve seen in TV sitcoms. Felix threatened to suppress Oscar’s manhood by taking away his social life and domesticating him, but Florence doesn’t really have that effect on Olive; she just makes life troublesome.
Simon, a comic genius, saw this. So the point of the female version is something else: How one woman who has defined herself all her life in a conjugal relationship flounders on her own, and how another who is professionally successful in a mostly male world – Olive is a TV producer – struggles to understand someone who isn’t.
Because the play isn’t so farcical now, director Jill Bloede can slow the pace down a bit. Florence (Ashli Stepp) can have real feelings: When Felix cries over the wife who abandoned him, he seems ridiculous, but we empathize with Florence. And Olive (Darlene Parker) can have outbursts that are less about comic rage and more about a deep-rooted discontent. (She’s performing on crutches and in a wheelchair after damaging the meniscus in her left knee, yet she navigates easily around the set and doesn’t lose energy or focus.)
Are there jokes? Plenty, and mainly at the Trivial Pursuit table. But even there, they have a sting. When the talk turns to sex, the dimmest member of the party says, “I’m not good at fantasies. Harry just makes one up and gives it to me.” Simon’s feelings about male control of women are couched in a quip.
The play’s not a feminist manifesto, and beloved gags come around when we expect them: Florence’s sinus-clearing honks and faux-suicidal look at the street far below the apartment’s inviting window, or Olive’s hurled plate of linguini. But I think Simon has mainly used this revision to introduce ideas that were freshly relevant in 1985 – and, if we’re honest, somewhat so today.