You'd think Neil Simon's most popular comedy - which premiered on Broadway nearly 20 years ago before showing up on both the large and small screens - would have exhausted its possibilities by now. And, apparently, it has.
What's missing in the female version of "The Odd Couple," which came to the Broadhurst last night, is the oddity. Strain rather than amusing contrast is evident when Oscar, the slob, and his meticulous roommate Felix are turned into Olive and Florence. It's a little like having Joan Rivers do "Charley's Aunt" - what's the point?
In the original, which was written from a male view point, touches of pathos neatly leavened the humor as the two divorced men (I think Felix was merely separated) found that living together was much more trying than living with their former mates. But the trim Rita Moreno, as Olive, doesn't rememble a slob in Ann Roth's becoming costumes, and the plump Sally Struthers, as Florence, her blond hair tumbling every which way, doesn't seem like the soul of fastidiousness even though Roth has dressed her as tidily as possible.
The wonderful poker game that opened "The Odd Couple" back in 1965 has become a game of Trivial Pursuit, last year's fad - or was it the year before? And while this gives Simon a chance to pose his own bits of trivia, these are not all that funny. The other major change finds the two British airline stewardesses invited down from upstairs converted into a pair of Spanish airline clerks (Lewis J. Stadlen and Tony Shalhoub), allowing for a wearisome string of jokes based on their troubles with English and Florence's difficulties with Spanish.
So the evening drones on with an occasional snappy Simonism. Still, there are too many flat and forced gags which director Gene Saks has helplessly tried to pep up with excessive mugging. Struthers, it turns out, has mastered a weird collection of grunts, groans, snuffles, sighs, honks and other assorted sounds.
To be fair, both actresses are placed at an extreme disadvantage in trying to move this long and burdensome evening along. The best moments come from the other members of the Friday-night gathering, to whom some of the best lines are given. Marilyn Cooper's whiny-voiced Vera is the funniest and the three remaining members of this married foursome (Mary Louise Wilson, Jenny O'Hara and Kathleen Doyle) get their licks in, too.
Designer David Mitchell's old, roomy Riverside Drive apartment looks just right (as did Oliver Smith's original one) but the wrong people are in it. You sit there wanting to call out, "Come back, Walter Matthau! Come back, Art Carney!" and "Come back, you Pigeon sisters, Carole Shelley and Monica Evans!"
It has no right to work. Yet, almost disconcertingly, it does. Neil Simon's professional shortchangers often suggest, wrongly I think, that Simon writes Simple Simon formula plays.
And npw he has. And, almost disconcertingly, as I say, it works. And the formula could not be more simple or more Simon. He has transexualized one of his biggest hits, The Odd Couple.
Last night, at the handsomely refurbished Broadhurst Theater, The New Odd Couple, The Even Odder Couple, Daughter of Odd Couple, or whatever, came into Broadway, sex-change in place and rarin' to go.
This is very clearly a formula change. Simon has taken his two grass-widowers, newly separated men, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, from his 20-year-old comedy The Odd Couple, and made women out of them - Olive Madison and Florence Unger.
In classic drama Tiresias was blinded for nothing much more.
Simon's two plays (one and a half plays, perhaps) are identical in outline; they only vary, and they vary significantly, in sailent detail.
But even some of the details, the actual jokes, are retained, and, here and there, surprisingly improved.
Oscar/Olive is still the slob, bereft of his/her spouse, who takes into his/her home the neatnik Felix/Florence, who has just been deserted by his/her spouse. And he/she stills irritates him/her to the first pangs of madness.
The whole structure of the play, and many of the phrases and jokes have been preserved in the aspic of proved success. For example the English Pigeon sisters, who come to dinner and variously inflame the hearts of Oscar and Felix, have beem replaced by the Spanish Costazuela brothers, birds of a similar feather.
But - and here is where Simon can be so trickily clever - the Spanish episode is far funnier and wittier than the original version.
Sinilarly, the poker school favored by Felix and Oscar has been replaced by a ladies' group - including a female cop in an unlikely skirt - devoted, rather less persuasively, to endless sessions of Trival Pursuit.
This is contrived, as are some of the other transpositions and transmutations, and it ultimately makes the new version of The Odd Couple not necessarily less funny than the original, for I don't really think it is, but less significant as comedy.
Part of the humor of this staging is a sense of men in drag - George Hearn and Van Johnson might do rather well in the leading roles - but the sheer comic insight into these two antipodal basic male types is partly lost in translation.
To take one obvious instance - the concept of a neurotically neat housewife is somehow not so bizarrely truthful as a portrait of a similarly compulsive man, if only because, taken at the cheapest, sexist level, the woman is merely role-playing, whereas the man is behaving unexpectedly and, therefore, comically.
The bottom line is that no one - certainly not Neil Simon - would have written The Odd Couple about women in the first place, however funny it turns out to be in the second place.
And it does turn out to be very funny indeed. Gene Saks has staged the play with more farcical touches than Mike Nichols used in the original - watch for example Florence threaten Olive with a tear-gas gun and then have to look to see which way the nozzle is pointing.
David Mitchell's Riverside Drive apartment is as spawlingly attractive as was Oliver Smith's 20 years ago, and the casting, although not suitable, is vigorous.
The male-bonded version has passed into legend, and one cannot forget Walter Matthau and Art Carney, Matthau and Jack Lemmon (film version by Saks), Jack Klugman and Victor Spinetti (London), and Klugman and Tony Randall (the TV spin-off).
The ladies are led by Rita Moreno as sloppy Olive, a spirited spitfire of a slob, and Sally Struthers of the strangulated voice endearingly aghast as the proper and persnickety Florence.
However in appearance they seem to have muddled themselves up, for Moreno is markedly the tidier, smarter, and more chic of the two.
The rest of the cast is golden. Simon has given them the right roles, and they trade them in for all they are worth.
Jenny O'Hara is particularly good as the acidulated Sylvie, and Tony Shalhoub and especially Lewis J. Stadlen bid fair to steal the play as the Spanish boys from Barcelona, Iberia, and the upstairs apartment.
If you're willing to wait patiently until Act II, Scene 2 of the new Broadway version of ''The Odd Couple,'' you'll discover that there is at least one good reason why Neil Simon has revised, if not exactly improved, his funniest play.
The scene is the one in which the title characters, apartment mates in exile from their respectively estranged spouses, serve dinner to two available Riverside Drive neighbors of the opposite sex. In the original ''Odd Couple,'' of course, the hosts were Oscar, the slob, and Felix, the fussbudget, and their dates were two giggly English sisters. In the new edition, which has undergone radical sex-change surgery, Oscar and Felix have become Olive (Rita Moreno) and Florence (Sally Struthers). The English sisters have been transformed into a pair of proper, lookalike Spanish brothers (Tony Shalhoub and Lewis J. Stadlen) suitable for mounting on a wedding cake.
These courtly brothers, we're told, ''speak perfect English every once in a while'' - but every once in a while, as it happens, is not enough. The foursome's soiree soon devolves into a jumble of cultural misunderstandings and malapropisms, in which Mr. Simon demonstrates that it is possible to create a championship match of comic badminton out of such linguistic confusions as ''no good'' for ''nougat'' and ''Toledo'' for ''Tolédo.'' Indeed, the scene can be viewed as a master comedy writer's farcical expansion of Ira Gershwin's lyric for ''Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.'' As superbly timed by the actors and the director Gene Saks, it fills the Broadhurst with hilarity that cannot be found anywhere else on Broadway (unless it's during the Act II opening of the Simon-Saks ''Biloxi Blues'').
That scene aside, this ''Odd Couple'' is best approached as a broad, if classily appointed, summer-stock package. While it was by no means an unpromising idea for Mr. Simon to write a reverse-gender revision of his 1965 Broadway classic, the casting of the star roles is quixotic and the execution frequently lackadaisical. The new jokes, many of which add more vulgarity than humor, often sound as if they were written on automatic pilot; some of the surviving old gags (though, thankfully, not all) are diminished by their new context. Clearly, Mr. Simon loses interest when retooling his plays. Like his lesser film adapatations of his stage hits and his flat 1982 Broadway revision of his 1962 musical ''Little Me,'' the revamped ''Odd Couple'' often seems as gratuitous as a new formula for Coke.
The playwright is not at his best when imagining female characters, and Olive and Flo at times sound like Oscar and Felix in drag. As a result, the gender switch proves less a spur to new levity than a gimmick that leaves a trail of distracting loose ends. We spend much of Act I wondering why Flo, having arrived at Olive's doorstep for shelter immediately after her marital breakup, expresses so little feeling for her children and absolutely no concern over their ultimate fate. It's equally puzzling that Olive shares Oscar's knowledge of sports but not his profession of sportswriter. (Rather awkwardly, it's explained that Olive picked up that knowledge from her ex-husband). While the poker-playing buddies of the first ''Odd Couple'' are now female Trivial Pursuit addicts, they sound at least as much like henpecked husbands of two decades ago as they do like Upper West Side women of today.
Mr. Simon does inject some updated references - to ''Dynasty,'' homosexuality, Architectural Digest, Tina Turner and feminist rhetoric - but they're affixed perfunctorily, like stickers slapped on an old valise, to characters sociologically rooted in the early 1960's. What's even more disappointing is the playwright's dismantling of some of the emotional underpinnings that made his original ''Odd Couple'' an affecting play rather than merely a compendium of jokes. At the memorable conclusion of the male version, we realize that the irresponsible Oscar has matured after spending three weeks in symbiotic disharmony with the exasperating Felix. This ''Odd Couple'' just trails off at the end, leaving Olive an unregenerate exemplar of trivial pursuits.
Even before the final curtain - and the equally lackluster big blowout that precedes it - it's obvious that Miss Moreno and Miss Struthers, capable comic actresses both, have not fully ignited the play's central conflict. The trouble is not merely the new script; it's the perverse casting that most muddies what should be clearly drawn comic battle-lines. It's odd indeed that the taut, immaculately turned-out Miss Moreno would appear as the free-wheeling slob, while the uninhibited, somewhat unkempt Miss Struthers would play her tense, compulsively neat boarder. If the actresses can't switch roles, they might at least sharpen their blurred characterizations by exchanging their Ann Roth costumes.
Both stars do get laughs - the busy Miss Struthers with Flo's various hypochondriacal spasms, the restrained Miss Moreno with her deadpanned, throwaway wisecracks. The supporting cast, led by Mr. Shalhoub's and Mr. Stadlen's wooly Spaniards, is funnier. Marilyn Cooper and Jenny O'Hara, as the most dimwitted and sardonic of the Trivial Pursuit players, were born to play Mr. Simon's cards, and my only complaint about the equally mirthful Mary Louise Wilson and Kathleen Doyle is that they don't have more to do.
Except in that tumultuous dinner-party scene, in which the visiting brothers' slightest shifts of posture are choreographed with deliciously nutty precision, Mr. Saks has aimed right for the jugular in his staging. The actors race clamorously around David Mitchell's handsome, realistic set almost from the start. But, given their recent labors on ''Biloxi Blues,'' Mr. Saks and Mr. Simon have no doubt earned the right to coast along with this rather relaxed facsimile of ''The Odd Couple.'' The account can be balanced later, when Matthew Broderick and Barry Miller are old enough to play Oscar and Felix in the real thing.