How Time Flies
Much has changed over the past 40 years, as the revival of The Odd Couple proves.
Still, virtually everything else I remember from that production has stayed the same, for Simon has wisely decided not to update the script. He did drop one reference: Dione Lucas, a onetime TV chef, is now too obscure to be referenced. And there is an anachronism in the new production: Lane wears his baseball cap backwards. Check out pictures of Walter Matthau in the original staging or the movie and you'll see that he's wearing his cap brim-forward, as everyone did in 1965.
But every other line is still in place. Are some of them dated? Certainly, the prices are. A telegram, said to cost $1.10 back then, will now run you an average of 55 cents per word. There's mention of "$1.30 for the cab." We're not told the distance in question, but we all know that today we're charged almost twice as much ($2.50) before we've moved an inch. Felix speaks of "38 cents for cigarettes, 10 cents for a paper." The former are now $7 a pack, nearly 19 times more, while the price of the latter -- depending on the particular paper -- has gone up 10 times (for the Times) or five (for the Post or News). "My maid gets $1.50 an hour," Oscar says. Now he'd pay at least $20 an hour, nearly 14 times more. Oscar spends "$6.25 for a bottle of wine, "Batard Montrachet" -- which now ranges from $75 for a 1998 A. Morey to $350 for a 1996 Verget. (The real question: How much would Oscar's 1965 bottle fetch today?) Oscar says to Murray, "I'll give you $200 for your gun." That'd be a bargain now, when a .357 magnum ranges in price from $300 to $600 -- and bear in mind that Oscar is offering to pay a premium because he feels it's worth anything to kill Felix.
But the biggest increase by far would be for the eight-bedroom, Upper West Side apartment that is said to cost $240 a month -- and, oh, did the Atkinson audience swoon at that price! Look to pay at least 30 times that amount now. As for The Odd Couple itself, the current production has a $100 top, which is almost 15 times more than what the best ticket cost in 1965: $6.90. There's been some inflation in divorce, too; Oscar tries to assuage Felix by telling him that there are 100,000 of those a year (in America), but last year there were 1,163,609.
What else has changed? Oscar mentions struggling to get "a clear picture on Channel 2." Before cable, there was much discussion about television reception. Most city dwellers, like Oscar, didn't have a strong antenna on their roofs but had to deal with "rabbit ears" -- two long, silvery antennae. Many a husband and wife argued about where the rabbit ears should be positioned to get the best picture. Oscar alludes to Lou Gehrig's record streak in baseball: the slugger played in 2,130 straight games without missing a single one. Well, Cal Ripken broke Gehrig's mark in 1995 and eventually had a 2,632-game streak. And if Simon were writing the play today, he wouldn't choose such expressions as "a typewritten list," "Bulldog Drummond," or even "Call me irresponsible," which then meant something to audiences who knew that as the title of a tune that had won the Best Song Oscar the year before. But Oscar's choices for romantic music -- "Mancini or Sinatra" -- might still be his choices today.
Frances and Blanche, respectively Felix and Oscar's wives, were popular names in the '20s, when these fortysomething ladies would have been born. Those names are clearly out of fashion now. Other names that were once foremost in our consciousness -- Dutch Cleanser, the Playboy Club, Schrafft's, the Automat, and Horn and Hardart -- are also gone. As for the Hotel Dixie, one of the worst hotels of the post-war era, it's still here; but after Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, it changed its name to the Hotel Carter. (That didn't make it any better.)
How we live our lives has greatly changed, too. Oscar says, "Felix wears a seatbelt at a drive-in movie." In 1965, most cars on the road didn't even have seatbelts, while drive-in theaters were plentiful; now, every car has seatbelts but few drive-ins exist. The biggest social change, though, involves smoking. Gwendolyn takes a cigarette from her purse and doesn't ask "Do you mind if I smoke?" Felix immediately grabs from the coffee table an ornate cigarette lighter, which you wouldn't find displayed in too many homes today.
So why are people still laughing as hard as they did in 1965? Because the theme of The Odd Couple was, is, and always will be eternal: People have a hard time living together because most of us have different behavioral patterns. One will want to sleep late, another will want to rise and shine early. One will want to play the same song on the CD player over and over again, another will be driven crazy by that. So, 40 years from now, audiences will probably roar at yet another production of The Odd Couple, no matter what the prices or the references.