Odd couples double up for twice the laughs (and tears)

by Nobuko Tanaka

In the 1960s, when I was a child, I imagined life in the far-away West through American movies and from watching TV series like “The Lucy Show” (“I Love Lucy”) and “Father Knows Best.” Back then, Japan’s economy had begun to pick up steam, and through comedy series such as these, people visualized a lifestyle they longed for, complete with a huge fridge stocked with Coke and a living room with sofa and TV. Then, in 1968, along came “The Odd Couple,” a movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, that appeared to perfectly portray this feel-good America.

It was originally written as a play by Bronx-born Neil Simon — who cut his teeth writing sketches for Phil Silvers and Jerry Lewis and went on to become the grand old man of Broadway with shows such as “Sweet Charity,” “Chapter Two” and “Biloxi Blues.” “The Odd Couple” was first staged in 1965 at the Plymouth Theater in NYC where, with Matthau and Art Carney playing two men living together after their marriages hit the rocks, it ran for almost 1,000 performances.

The story’s classic sitcom humor is based on what happens when this duo — long-term friends but completely different types, one sensitive, precise and clean (Carney/Lemmon), the other carefree and casual (Matthau) — are thrown together at this testing time in their lives. Even though each one tries hard to help the other, the strain on their relationship goes from bad to worse.

Hence, as with so much great comedy, this is really a rather sad situation — but one that’s highly entertaining when observed from the outside. As Simon himself once said: “Life is both sad and funny. I can’t imagine a comical situation that isn’t at the same time also painful. I used to ask myself: What is a humorous situation? Now I ask: What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?”

Simon told this particular sad story twice: The original odd couple of Felix and Oscar were revisited in 1986, when the dramatist wrote another play of the same name in which the central characters are both female: Florence and Audrey. Parco Theater is staging both alternately (and it takes two trips to the theater to see both).

The basic story line is the same in both versions, but the two take different directions due to the change of gender and setting. Most crucially, these intriguingly contrasting productions arrive at opposite conclusions — in one, the men’s friendship ultimately endures and deepens, in the other the two women go separate ways as they reclaim their independence.

Directed with great originality and attention to detail by Yumi Suzuki, one of Japan’s foremost directors of contemporary dramas depicting young people’s lives, the productions also sparkle thanks to changes made to the existing translation by Suzuki’s long-term collaborator, Sanae Iijima. The comedy is ratcheted up several notches, as, for example, in the treatment of the two Spanish brothers who are the women’s neighbors in the 1986 version. These two are hilarious in everything they do — and especially everything they say in side-splitting broken Japanese. Indeed, the whole cast delights: Each actor disappears into his or her character, and all act with evident enjoyment — none more so than Kyoko Koizumi, whose Audrey is a gem, and Kazuyuki Asano, who makes the supporting role of Felix and Oscar’s friend Vinny completely his own.