Playwright's chance encounter leads to 'New Look at the Odd Couple'

Sunday, June 16, 2002

— One day, as Neil Simon was driving to his home in West Los Angeles, he turned on the radio and heard something familiar. An acting troupe was performing his classic 1965 play, "The Odd Couple." After listening for several minutes, the playwright mused to himself, "I can do better."

The result of that chance encounter is "Oscar and Felix, A New Look at the Odd Couple," which will have its premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Village.

John Larroquette, who collected a quartet of Emmys as the assistant district attorney in TV's "Night Court," plays the unkempt sports writer Oscar Madison. Joe Regalbuto, best known as Candice Bergen's reporter sidekick Frank Montana on the old TV series "Murphy Brown," acts the counterpoint as the fastidious photographer Felix Unger.

After completing his reworking of "The Odd Couple," Simon called Gilbert Cates, producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, which Simon had often attended. Would Cates be interested?

Absolutely.

"Neil has rewritten 75 percent of the original, but the story is the same," commented Cates, former president of the Directors Guild and longtime producer of the Academy Awards.

"The characters are the same, but he's made a lot of changes. The white Pigeon sisters are now Hispanic. Things that didn't exist 36 years ago, such as cell phones, have been introduced. Basically, it is a question of restating the play so it is accessible to today's audience."

"The Odd Couple," which drew its comedy from the two disparate men who try to share an apartment after their divorces, has had a long and varied history. It was a smash hit on Broadway with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, and it played throughout the country with various duos. Over the years, it had reincarnations with a variety of actors and actresses in the lead roles.

Matthau repeated his role in the 1968 movie, with Jack Lemmon as Felix. It was the most successful of their many pairings. In 1998, they attempted the misguided "The Odd Couple II." From 1973 to 1980, Jack Klugman (Oscar) and Tony Randall (Felix) starred in the ABC television series. "The New Odd Couple," with black actors, lasted one season on ABC, 1982-1983.

"Oscar and Felix" is scheduled for a five-week run at the 500-seat Geffen (named for benefactor David Geffen, co-founder of DreamWorks SKG), with a possible extension of one or two weeks. Whether Simon is thinking of a tour and eventually New York, he's not saying. Both Regalbuto and Larroquette are unencumbered by TV series and willing to take the play wherever Simon desires.