The New York Times Review of The Odd Couple on Broadway

Walter Kerr
The New York Times
March 11, 1965

The Odd Couple Review

The Plymouth Theater

I’m sorry the Moscow Art players have returned to Russia. I’d like them to have seen the first-act poker game in “The Odd Couple.”

I don’t necessarily say they’d have learned anything from it. I just feel pretty sure they’d have liked it. It has so much interior truth. Director Mike Nichols has staged an absolute summer festival of warm beer, sprayed toward the ceiling like those terraced fountains municipal designers are so fond of, and I suppose we can credit author Neil Simon with providing the sandwiches. The sandwiches have been of whatever was left over in host Walter Matthau’s long-defrosted refrigerator (“it’s either very new cheese or very old meat” Mr. Matthau volunteers as he offers his cronies a choice between brown sandwiches and green) and the members of the party are happy enough to munch them as they gripe, growl, snarl, and roar over their hands, their wives, their lives, and the high cost of losing.

This is where the art comes in. Instead of isolating each one of Mr. Simon’s dozens of laugh-lines and milling it for all it’s worth, director Nichols flings all the gags into the pot together, letting them clink and spin like so many chips, until everything overlaps and you can’t tell life from lunacy. Nat Frey shuffles the pack as though he were crushing glass in his strong bare hands, John Fielder sings his piping little song about having to leave by twelve until it takes on the piercing sound of counterpoint from another planet, Sidney Armus and Paul dooley fling their arms up and their cards down like men freshly accused of treason, and Mr. Matthau grunts and bellows in his homespun way to put a moose-like bass under the whole hot summer-night orchestration. The interplay is true, blue, and beautiful.

After the poker game comes the play, which is jim-dandy, ginger-peachy, and good. Mr. Matthau is a divorced man, which is why he is able to have all his friends in on Friday nights and also why the eight room apartment looks like one of those village bazaars at which underprivileged citizens can exchange their old refuse. (Oliver Smith has caught in his setting just the right muddy and mottled note for ramshackle bachelor quarters with the trousers back from the cleaners hanging where they ought to be, from the bookshelves, and with a nice fat hole burned in what used to be the best lampshade).

Into the dissolute comfort and the brawling bliss of Mr. Matthau’s menage comes a thin note of warning. One friend, who turns out shortly to be Art Carney, hasn’t shown up. News is received that he, too, has left his wife. Furthermore, he is threatening suicide, sort of. Now it is time for Mike Nichols to set his mother-hen actors pacing, pacing, pacing the floor as they brood and cluck and worry inordinately about their deeply disturbed buddy. When Mr. Carney does finally appear, the rush to save him from himself – all windows are locked tightly against jumping and he’s scarcely allowed to go to the bathroom alone – is sympathetic, solicitous and rough as a maddened hockey game. We may not have had as funny a first act since “The Acharnians.”

Naturally, Mr. Matthau and Mr. Carney now settle down his roommates, making as nice a couple as you’d care to meet if they could only get along. Mr. Carney is death on dust and a fast man with an Aerosol bomb (one reason his wife threw him out is that he always insisted on recooking the dinner) and he drives Mr. Matthau stark, staring mad. In short, both of them might just as well have wives and that constitutes the meat, the moral, and the malicious merriment of this brief encounter.

The contest thins out a bit, I am honor bound to say, during the second act, while Mr. Carney worries desperately over his London broil and reduces a couple of visiting pigeons (they’re girls, they’re sisters, and their name is Pigeon) to tears. But the repeated joke is at least a good joke, the Pigeon sisters ultimately prove to be funny and useful, Mr. Simon’s comic inventions keep re-igniting, and the poker players are coming back, so I wouldn’t even notice if I were you.

Now a word about Mr. Matthau, and I do hope the Moscow Art is listening. Mr. Matthau could play all of the parts in “Dead Souls” with one hand tied to one foot and without changing makeup. He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent. ¬†Of course, he is good, too, impersonating an orangutan as he leaps furniture in his wild desire to make certain alterations in Mr. Carney’s throat, and again when he shows his old pal the door (only to be haunted by the memory of that despairing face and by a parting remark that he comes to think of as The Curse of the Cat People). But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.

We mustn’t overlook Mr. Carney, who is immensely funny quivering his lip like an agitated duck, clearing his ears by emitting foghorn hoots, and clawing his hands through what is left of his hair to indicate pride, despair and all of the other seven deadly virtues. His problem is tension (“It’s tension. I get it from tension. I must be tense,” he says) and ours is to keep from laughing through the next good line.

It’s a good problem to have, and I urge you to drop in on “The Odd Couple” any night at all, Friday’s included.

Images