Speaking of “Men Run Amok” or It’s a Grumpy Kind of Love…

As promised, deep brooding thoughts on a light-bright comedy about major male miasma. In other words, my program notes…

You gotta love the dysfunctional American male as dreamed up by Neil Simon in his 1965 world-class comedy, THE ODD COUPLE. Hapless and heart-broken, soon to up-ended by the rising tide of social revolutions (gender, racial,
sexual), these half-dozen testasterone prototypes are made redeemable by virtue of a generosity of spirit and affection displayed by each toward the other. It’s a grumpy kind of love which distinguishes itself from the low-level rage soon to come from many a male sector in the country. Not yet embittered by unemployment, nor carping about Affirmative Action, nor resentful of his own declining–and his wife’s escalating–pay-check, each of these poker buds–whether kicked out of the house, or fleeing it for a few hours, or traveling dutifully to the warmer climbs of South Florida, represents the last of a dying breed (which is to say, the good-natured, fortune-challenged White American Male). We don’t get too much straight male-bonding on our stages these days; nor much male soul-searching either. Not with this degree of hilarity. So welcome back to Friday Night Poker and Neil Simon’s Original Men’s Group.

And let it be said by this artistic director who’s selected this play with a giddy heart (and a playwright’s appreciation for the brilliance of craft on display), that he misses his own men’s group badly. But we didn’t play poker. We took turns going around in a circle talking about life. We gave it a good few years, meeting monthly, but in the end, the circle broke. We were too busy to keep gathering. The ritual of sharing personal updates wasn’t powerful enough a draw. Clearly, we should have been playing poker.

The journey that Oscar and Felix take (without leaving the apartment) is one of men caring for each other in the absence of women; an alternative family structure long before it might have been labeled a Same Sex (Odd) Couple. There’s been considerable speculation over the years as to whether Felix may have functioned as a “stealth gay stereotype” in the still- n the still-closeted world of mid-60s Manhattan and early 70s television. Dana Stevens, flim critic for Slate.com, has posited that Oscar and Felix are a couple whose “oddness” has less to do
with their differing approach to laundering clothes (Felix: send to dry-cleaner. Oscar: wear in shower), than with the fact they are two divorced, heterosexual men sharing a Manhattan apartment, where they cook, clean (or refuse to clean), bicker, and negotiate the dilemmas of everyday existence together. But rather than mirroring the same submerged sexual tensions that would riddle many a Rock Hudson-Dorris Day film, Stevens argues that the Oscar/Felix relationship had none of these strained, coy overtones. The Odd Couple might be read as an unconsummated love story between a straight and a gay man” but it also rises above such a label. “Whatever their preferences in the bedroom, it’s clear that Oscar and Felix are spiritually married, locked together in an almost Beckettian struggle between dependence and autonomy. ‘It’s your life,’ Felix shrugs at one point, when Oscar makes yet another ill-considered decision. ‘When did you give it back to me?’ Oscar parries.”

Men caring for each other is a beautiful thing. And, in the hands of a comic genius, it can also be very funny. When that genius undertakes the dramatization of such in the midst of one domestic crisis after another, what emerges is some of the funniest writing in the history of American theater.

And that, quite simply, is why we’re doing this play. This comedy reminds us of the great good of coming together, if for no other righteous reason than to enjoy ourselves in the company of wildly imperfect men, and some perfectly dotty women as well. Let this play restore our faith in our collective imperfectability. What wonderful slobs and persnickety control freaks we all are!