The flower-power love-rock musical comes with an undertone of gloom and worry; the snappish comedy about mismatched middle-aged roommates bears its own load of angst and uncertainty. Thus do these, our days of constant low-grade woe, affect the productions of Hair and The Odd Couple now playing here in the nation’s capital, the one at an arts palace where once its counterculture thrash might have seemed unseemly, the other at a smaller, traditionally thinkier house where a querulous fretfulness has pretty much always been on the theatrical menu.
Hair—with its hard-bodied Broadway-tour cast dancing constantly up the aisles of the Kennedy Center Opera House, getting into seats and laps and yes, into your hair—is an explosion of noise and energy from the outset, joyous and hippie-happy on the surface, but (as has been noted more than once) marked by a deep vein of melancholy in Diane Paulus’ restaging. By contrast Jerry Whiddon’s take on The Odd Couple, with its rogues gallery of Washington’s best-loved Regular Guy actors assembled around Oscar Madison’s poker table at Theater J, starts slow and takes its time parceling out its laughs; at its core, this reading is a story about two messed-up divorced dads, not a laugh-a-minute comedy about two guys who like each other fine but can’t stand each other’s habits for long.
Well, it’s that too, of course: J. Fred Shiffman’s Felix Unger still bustles about maddeningly, once he’s gotten the boot at home and moved into Oscar’s eight-room Manhattan place. And Rick Foucheux’s Oscar, now that the wife and kids have decamped to California, is still the guy who’s content to serve warm soda and stale chips to the guys at his Friday-night poker game, to overlook both that the fridge has been on the fritz for a month and that there’s a banana buried in the sofa cushions.
But they’re digging deeper, these two. You wonder if Foucheux’s slovenly sportswriter has always had quite such a misanthropic edge; you believe, now and then, that Shiffman’s stiff-backed newsman might just give in to the sadness that all his fussing (with ashtrays, with crumbs, with napkins and coasters and vacuum cleaners) is helping to keep at bay—and that he might follow through on those suicide threats that Neil Simon’s dialogue suggests are mostly meant for effect. It adds a certain edge to the jokes, that darkness on both sides of the domestic divide. Good, then, that their poker buddies—Delaney Williams’ excitable worry-wart Murray, Michael Willis’ henpecked, owl-eyed Vinnie, Marcus Kyd’s perpetually irritated Speed, Paul Morella’s blandly unflappable Roy—have plenty of comic business to keep the proceedings from tipping over into truly Eeyoreish territory.
There’s more business of all sorts, I should note, than in most of what passes for full-length comedy these days. At three acts and two-hours-twenty, The Odd Couple makes the modern one-act seem like a sitcom; its rhythms are more relaxed, its situational setups more unhurried. That opening poker banter? It seems like forever before we actually meet Oscar and Felix, and it’s well into the second act before their head-butting really rises to truly anarchic heights.
Once it does, though: hoo-boy. The hilarities culminate in a wordless ballet of icily fastidious tidying-up and irritated, deliberate messing-up-again, once Oscar has decided Felix is too infuriating to speak to. There’s gold, too, in the earlier scene where a weepy Felix wins the hearts of the daffy Pigeon sisters (Lise Bruneau, Helen Pafumi), whose other parts Oscar primarily had in mind. Those bits play the way they always did—as broad, no-apologies comedy, character-defining emotional shadings not required.