Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
Issue illustration


Current Issue:
Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

Site Map


QLRS sections
Short Stories
Extra Media
The Acid Tongue
QLRS general

About Us
Contributors' Notes
Mailing List
Site Map


Laugh Across The Atlantic
British and American comedies in tandem at the DBS Arts Centre

By Richard Lord

The Odd Couple is nowhere near being Neil Simon’s best play, yet it is by far his most successful piece of theatre. In fact, the original 1965 Broadway smash hit spawned an Odd Couple mini-industry that alone would have guaranteed Simon a comfortable income for the rest of his life. That mini-industry included a 1968 hit film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau which saw a sequel three decades later; an updated 1985 theatrical edition with Oscar and Felix still around as well as a female version with Olive and Florence; a TV series that ran for five successful years and is even today enjoying a lucrative after-life in syndication; not to mention repeated productions of the original play all across the globe - including the Singapore Repertory Theatre Couple that played here in the early part of this year. Clearly, Mr Simon must have hit just the right vein with his creation of that odd couple.

The vein that Simon hit - and continued for years to tap - is easily digestible comedy (even if some of it has stewed awhile in a slightly bitter broth) which looks at modern-day anxieties. The anxieties may be real, painful even, but Simon offers the balm of quick laughter to lessen any pain.

What Simon creates in most of his early plays - and does quite well here in The Odd Couple - is serve up a mid-20th century New York comedy of humours. And it helps your appreciation of these works if you know a bit about that New York. For instance, when one character hits his cigar-chomping poker buddy with this, “You wanna do me a favor? Breathe towards New Jersey.”, the joke is funnier if you know that northern Jersey was long known for his heavily polluted air.

Like the old comedies of humours, the characters are more like types and temperaments than fully drawn figures, but they do tell us something interesting about us and others we deal with most days.

Even for those who find early Simon much too thin a concoction, you have to give the fellow credit for his ability to spin out funny one-liners, a talent honed over years of writing and collaborating on Borsht Belt revues and radio and TV scripts. As a plus, these one-liners generally serve the purpose of delineating in an exaggerated way character traits of the play’s principles.

One good example: One of this play’s central characters describes how cautious his best friend in this way, “He wears a seat beat when watching a drive-in movie.” You want another good example? (Neil Simon always gives us dozens upon dozens of them.) We discover this same über-cautious fellow’s relationship with strong drink with this line: “For New Year’s Eve, he drinks Pepto-Bismol.”

Not all these one-liners work. Early Neil Simon had a tendency to keep on popping away at a funny target even when he had to strain to get out one more joke. The above fellow (whom we will soon discover is one Felix Ungar, hypochondriac, neatness-nanny and control-freak) is in this same exchange described as “the only man in the world with clenched hair.”

And the comic fuse in the plot is that following the shattering break-up of Felix’s marriage, he’s invited to move in with his best friend Oscar, a world-class slob and the source of the above quotes about his friend Felix. Guess what happens? That’s right, and it’s that sheer predictability that many see as a major shortcoming of The Odd Couple and most of Neil Simon’s first period of playwriting.

The SRT production falls back on the original ‘65 script, a strategy tipped off by the prices thrown about in the show. For instance, no one could stay in a poker game for just 25 cents in this new millennium of ours. Also, Oscar boasts that he has blown a cool $6.25 on a fancy wine for their big date with the Pigeon sisters. These days, it would be hard to scare up a decent/respectable bottle of Skid Row rotgut at that low price.

In mounting The Odd Couple, the Singapore Repertory Theatre, certainly one of the Singapore arts scene’s more encouraging financial success stories, made an interesting decision: to have the actors playing the sob Oscar Madison and the anally compulsive Felix Ungar switch roles midway through the run. (You wanna hear compulsive: this guy’s marriage counselor kicked him out of his office because he deemed Felix a “lunatic”.) This was artistically a gamble, but financially a sure bet, leading to sold-out houses as fans came twice to see the differences in the show.

The two actors who shared the central roles are two of Singapore’s strongest, especially in the realm of comedy. Remesh Panicker is a lumbering bear of a man, who imposes his presence with every appearance. Adrian Pang, on the other hand, is more in the classic Neil Simon mode: an Everyman who seems to fit uneasily into most situations.

The intuitive guess would have to be that Panicker was perfect as Oscar, while Pang was the quintessential Felix and never the twain should switch. Yet once again, intuition proves faulty and the two versions of the play proved quite entertaining and accomplished in their own ways. Wisely, the actors and their director Christian Huber decided not to have the two Oscars and Felixes as mere copies of each other, only with different actors. Pang and Panicker each created his own version of the two roles, nicely differentiated form his predecessor’s take.

As mentioned, Adrian Pang excels as an Everyman lost in a world he can’t control. His Felix walks into a room with a “Loser” sign hanging form his neck. Without missing a beat, this Felix goes from absolutely irritation to sympathetic and loveable: one moment, you want to choke him, five minutes, you want to hug him.

Pang’s comic timing was beautiful in places, such as when a befuddled Felix is trying to engage in small talk with the two Pigeon sisters and asks them “how long they’ve been in the United States“, then adds in politely intoned brackets “of America”. Pang even manages to catch some of Jack Lemmon’s gestures and intonation without being an obvious filch. (Lemmon played Felix in the original, box office smash film.)

Panicker’s Felix, by contrast, came off as a compact, neat man trapped in a body that obviously didn‘t fit him. His discomfort with his own physical being was expressed in a series of small but nicely comic gestures. It was from there no stretch at all to surmise that this Felix’s discomfort with himself transfers quickly to his discomfort in his failed marriage, or the messy, dusty world he inhabits/he’s been thrust into.

Remesh Panicker came at his role as Oscar like a bear with furniture... and a nose for fine wines. Whether prowling about with an amiable scowl or slowly igniting lust, this star sportswriter was a compelling figure. However, Panicker’s Oscar was also a little too polished to be a full triumph. Oscar should be more gruff, more rough-edged than this one. For instance, when Oscar decided to torment Felix by reverting to his old ways and making a mess of in their shared liing room, Panicker’s Oscar seems to be playing a part: this slovenliness should come naturally to Oscar, an act of reverting to form/of nature reclaiming its own.

Adrian Pang’s Oscar is more of a man who has enthusiastically embraced slovenliness in his second bachelorhood and is now trying to make the best of his new freedom. He’s gruff, but that’s because he needs that gruffness to overcome any temptation to tidy things up a bit. You could imagine this Oscar as the rebellious product of an archetypal Jewish mother who kept on pounding the Torah of cleanliness into his lazy head.

It’s curious that even though both actors were good as Oscar, they were clearly better as Felix. This is probably no reflection on the range of their acting abilities or directorial strategy but suggests the simple fact that obsessive-compulsive Felix with all his layers of guilt and repression is a juicier role than Oscar.

The play’s other characters are all basically foils to Oscar and Felix, there to lend support and illuminate some aspect of the Oscar-Felix relationship. As such, the best actors filling these roles can do is to perform their functions well. The Singapore Rep team gets mixed grades on this count.

Darius Tan was still a bit unsure of the proper focus for his role as Oscar’s accountant and poker-playing crony Roy. Tan was competent but nothing more.

Christian Lee, who over the last two years has specialised in nicely handling characters fuelled by ambiguity, was nowhere near as convincing playing Speed, the most diligently one-dimensional member of Oscar’s poker round. Speed should be all Big Apple grittiness and gall, but Lee (himself from New York) seemed uncomfortable in such a straight-deal characterisation: he chose to seek out nooks and corners the character just doesn’t have and his edgy performance seemed to belong to a different play.

(By the way, no one here, not even Lee, displayed an ease with New Yorkease, though what they did offer is not too disturbing. Remember, cast - ‘irony’ in the New York idiom is pronounced ‘eye-erny’.)

As in his recent turn as a hired killer in Pinter’s Dumb Waiter, Gerald Chew demonstrated that while he has fine acting abilities, he encounters difficulty reaching beyond a certain range. His Murray the cop was a solid performance, but what it portrays is not very credible as a poker-playing New York cop, vintage 1965. Chew would have had no worries here about being arrested/hauled in for impersonating a New York policeman.

Mark Waite hop-scotched around a number of accents, some of them American, and occasionally landed on a fitting one - the archetypal whiney New Yorker. (In the second edition of the show, he was more consistent in this department.) Despite this problem, he did put together a likeable and believable character which proved the strongest of the male supports in the production.

The two best supporting actors, however, were Beatrice Chia and Emaa Yong as the Pigeon sisters. Chia may have stumbled a bit with the British English accent, but she proved to have perfect pitch when it came it came to looks and gestures. She and Yong were both able to reap well-deserved laughs with a mere turn of the head, raising of an eyebrow. Yong, by the way, was assured with her accent as well as the physical humour that enriched the Pigeon scenes.

Christian Huber’s direction was crisp and polished, maintaining the proper pace to give Simon’s comedy its full unraveling. The blocking provided good visual set-ups to optimise the visual comedy - for instance, when the Pigeon sisters come down for dinner with Oscar and Felix. Here, the arrangement of the two ladies and the two guys pulls humour out of a mere look, a hesitant move.

Speaking of visuals, the sight gags were also usually well on the mark: the little bits of true-blue American schtick (such as Felix’s polite attempt to light Gwendolyn’s cigarette ending in his snaring the cigarette with the lighter) filled the evening with a string of light delights.

As one would expect from an SRT production, the production values here were exemplary. Set designer Sebastian Zeng was back in high form with a set that bespoke assured professionalism, easily malleable from Oscar’s bear-with-furniture lair/den to the transformed, sparkling flat of Felix’s determined/compulsive housekeeping. Suven Chan’s lighting design was effective without being obtrusive, as was the use and tone of the accompanying music. The only thing I would fault in this area was the door buzzes: while they may not have been stipulated in the text, they should have ad-libbed a few buzzes while people were waiting outside during long exchanges of dialogue as to how to answer the door.

The costumes are also good, though Oscar’s outfits at home could be a little more slovenly. On the other hand, Adrian-Felix first appears dressed like a schlemiel. Afterwards, his garb bespeaks a reforming schlemiel. The dare-we-be-too-sexy attire of the Pigeon sisters also fit the mood of their scenes well.

All in all, while it’s possible to do better versions of The Odd Couple, the one we had here - in both incarnations - was certainly a treat worth seeing - twice.

[Page 1 | Page 2]

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004


About Richard Lord
Mail the editors

Return to Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Love Is All You Knead
Richard Lord reviews February drama.

Clearly, A Mark of Some Distinction
Richard Lord on The Gospel According To Mark.

Related Links

Singapore Repertory Theatre
External link.

The Stage Club
External link.

The unofficial Neil Simon homepage
External link.

Neil Simon profile
External link.

Another Neil Simon profile
External link to PBS.

Interview with Neil Simon
External link to Bookpage.

The official Alan Ayckbourn website
External link.

Interview with Alan Ayckbourn
External link.

Chat with Alan Ayckbourn
External link to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.


Return to QLRS home

Copyright © 2004 The Authors
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | E-mail