OSCAR AND FELIX Sullivan and McEleney in The Odd Couple.
There are King Oedipus and his mom, there are Romeo and Juliet, and there are Oscar and Felix. Okay, there have been other archetypes in theater through the ages, but the comic duo in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple are as elemental as flint and steel.
And the sparks they strike in the current production at Trinity Repertory Company will be warming the hearts of even grumpy, wife-tugged theatergoers (through May 9).
The set design by Eugene Lee is the set of a television show, complete with klieg lights and applause sign, and we are the audience.
Success here has as much to do with this particular Oscar (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) and Felix (Brian McEleney) as it does with the playwright and his patented, easy-to-swallow, Laughter Lite style of rib-tickling.
For his 1965 Broadway hit, Simon had practiced his tricks in the early ’50s Sid Caesar TV writing room, trying to one-up the likes of fellow comedy writers Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. By the time the playwright translated The Odd Couple into the 1968 film and gave the nod for the early ’70s sitcom, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar had established themselves firmly in the American imagination as exemplars of domestic conflict, gender irrelevant.
On Broadway, they were played by Art Carney and Walter Matthau (later Jack Klugman), respectively. On TV for five seasons, Klugman reprised his role as the sloppy one, and Tony Randall established himself as the pasha of prissiness.
Under Curt Columbus’s loose-leash direction, two Trinity veterans inhabit the roles as convincingly as if they had climbed into Oscar and Felix — or into bear and squirrel costumes — and zipped up. Their chemistry should be patented.
Sullivan gives great slob. When we first see Oscar, he is not sharing his apartment, except for a weekly gang of friends bantering around a poker table. Somebody notices a dried-up Petri dish of a TV dinner from the week before. Clothes are heaped here and there like clam shell middens. Sullivan plays Oscar as an expansive, wise-cracking farce of nature, braying or barking out even casual lines, but calming occasionally to issue a thoughtful one. We don’t dismiss him as a smart-aleck blowhard and we are ready to accept his standing up to a serious challenge — such as a friend in need.
McEleney’s Felix is similarly multidimensional. He plays him as earnest and good-natured about his all-but-apron-wearing fastidiousness, picking up every crumb and cigarette butt, and feeding the boys at the poker table as cheerfully as Betty Crocker. McEleney doesn’t reach for laughs but lets them come to him on their own.
Simon sure knew his dramatic structure, starting things off with Felix’s friends worrying that he might commit suicide, and Felix milking that for attention, gazing longingly out the 12-story window.
Oscar is divorced, rattling around alone in an eight-room apartment when Felix shows up, distraught over his wife throwing him out after a dozen years of marriage. He adores her but she is fed up with him, or at least with his being such an obsessive-compulsive neat freak, despite his having taken over the cooking chores. The two guys, needing each other as they do, are a marriage made in purgatory.