Oscar Madison Saved My Marriage
It’s opening night of the Neil Simon classic “The Odd Couple” and I’m sitting fourth row center at the Laguna Playhouse, the theater packed with excited patrons.
“The guy from ‘Grease 2’ is playing Felix!” an expensively coiffed woman in a tasteful black sheath dress seated next to me whispers to her similarly attired seatmate. “And the man playing Oscar,” black sheath goes on, “I saw him in another show here a few years ago, he’s wonderful. And handsome!”
I smile. He sure is.
The way a sailor can tell smooth seas by a red sky at night, I’m usually able to tell by the energy in the theater before the curtain comes up whether a play is going to be a hit or a flop. But tonight I’m too nervous to predict which way the performance will go because that handsome guy playing Oscar Madison? He’s my husband, Kip Gilman.
Before Kip and I met on a blind date in 1997, the last thing I’d wanted was to date an actor. I’d grown up with an actor father and had been in the profession myself since I was 6, so I was keenly aware of the fierce insecurity that accompanies the actor’s life. You never know when, or if, the next job will come. You feel incredibly fulfilled when you’re working, and devastatingly depressed when you’re not. The actor’s life is a roller coaster, and it was bumpy enough without sharing the seat with a partner.
But my usual type, sullen musicians (I know, kind of a lateral move from actors), had left me broken-hearted and alone. Kip, with his warmth, matinee idol good looks, and infectious sense of humor, won me over. By the time “The Odd Couple” opened we’d been together almost 18 years, but we had started to think maybe our run as a couple was over.
We’ve both always valued our independence; neither of us has ever felt the need to be one of those joined-at-the-hip couples. But with our separate interests, separate friends and separate lives, it was feeling more and more like we were just roommates. Nothing was terribly wrong – there was no major illness or financial issues. We had just, as they say, “grown apart.”
When Kip learned he’d landed the role of Oscar, we looked at his three-week rehearsal period in Laguna as an opportunity to take a break, a chance to see what life would feel like without each other.
He left our Malibu home early on a Monday morning. Grimly we agreed to have no contact except for emergencies for the entire three-week rehearsal period, so we could really try out the idea of living apart.
The first two days? Bliss. I loved having the whole house to myself. My cat slept in our bed – something usually not allowed because Kip is allergic. I blasted Bruno Mars as loud as I wanted and danced around the house in my PJs. I didn’t have to worry about my disposable razors disappearing from the shower – whenever Kip decides to shave his beard it means for me either a dripping wet exodus in search of my missing razor or stubbly legs. I had only my own dishes to wash, my own laundry to clean.
But by Wednesday I began to miss him. While my cat is snuggly, it’s not the same as falling asleep protected in the clamshell of Kip’s big chest and arms. In the mornings it made me sad to make our big California king – what was usually a minutes-long procedure of un- tumbling sheets, pillows and comforter became a simple 30-second re-tucking of my narrow edge of the bed. Who knew how little space I took up when I slept alone? And as much as I love “Uptown Funk,” three straight days of getting funky to it is enough for a lifetime. And you know what? Smooth legs are overrated. Especially if you have no one to share them with.
By Thursday night I was white knuckling against the urge to text. “We promised!” I kept reminding myself as I lay in the dark gazing at the pristine expanse of Kip’s side. I even missed his snoring. (No, actually, the snoring, not so much.)
So when I opened my computer on Friday morning to find an email from him, I felt butterflies for the first time in a long time.
“Honey,” the note read, “I’m feeling really nervous about learning the lines. There are so many! I know we’re taking a break, but is there any chance you could come down and help me this weekend?”
I’ve rarely seen Kip so worried about learning the lines of a show. He’s been doing theater for over 40 years and has had plenty of roles as dialogue-heavy as Oscar. But he idolizes Walter Matthau, who originated the role on Broadway and of course starred in the film.
“I’m stepping into some big shoes,” he said.
“Of course!” I replied immediately. “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll get it done.”
It felt good to be needed. I hadn’t felt that way for a while. I carted kitty over to the neighbors and fairly leapt into my car for the two-hour drive south.
We ran the lines of the show after his rehearsal on Friday and then, exhausted, crawled into the ridiculously small bed at the condo the Playhouse had provided for his stay. The bed was fine for one person, but the two of us had to sleep in a tight embrace to avoid falling off. It was wonderful.
The next day Kip went off to rehearsal and I enjoyed a day of window-shopping in downtown Laguna Beach. I drooled over the Rick Owens pieces at Anastasia Boutique, slipped my aching feet into a pair of dreamy Naot sandals at The Shoe Cellar, bought some Dutch licorice (my favorite) at The Candy Baron. Then I picked up some takeout so I could have dinner ready for Kip when he finished work. That night we ran lines and once again fell into a physically constricted but deliciously cuddly sleep.
Since he had Monday off, after Kip’s Sunday rehearsal we took the night off and went to the Lumberyard for some steaks. I listened as he told me about the fun he was having working with the cast. He even pretended to be interested in my shopping excursions, even though I know Kip’s enthusiasm for shopping is equal to my interest in baseball. It felt like a real date. Like the ones we had when we first met and we felt tingly and alive in each other’s company.
As we strolled along the sidewalk lining the expanse of Main Beach, we ran the lines of the show. I played all the roles except for Oscar. I lowered my voice for Murray the Cop, squealed in a British accent as both Pigeon sisters, made Felix’s famous allergic honking sounds. It was a blast.
And it was during the “spaghetti” scene that I fell back in love with my husband.
Kip as Oscar said angrily, “I want you to get your spaghetti off of my poker table!”
I as Felix laughed.
Kip as Oscar asked, “What’s so funny?”
I as Felix smugly announced, “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguini!”
Kip as Oscar mimed throwing a plate of imaginary pasta at an imaginary wall and yelled, triumphantly in his full-volume, theatrically trained voice, “Now it’s garbage!”
We hadn’t noticed that we had wandered into a fairly populated section of the beach walk. A young couple with a baby in a stroller stared. A hipster-type in nerd glasses and button-down shirt looked up from his iPhone. Their expressions expressed concern. Are these people fighting? Are they on drugs? Should I call 911?
You know that kind of laughing where you can’t stop? Where tears come out of your eyes and you have trouble breathing? That’s what happened to me when I saw the looks on those people’s faces.
I realized how insane we looked and I just lost it. And then Kip started laughing too. We were laughing so hard we had to sit down on a bench, and then it became that kind of laughing where you no longer know why you were laughing in the first place, but it’s like the laughter itself is funny. People kept staring and that made the moment funnier, and suddenly, in the midst of our giggling, I realized that being one of those joined-at-the-hip couples wouldn’t be so bad as long as I was joined with Kip. He’s my partner-in-crime, my lover, my colleague, my best friend.
When we finally stopped laughing Kip stood up, raised his hand and said, “Thank you, ladies and gentleman! We’re here every week!” Which started us laughing again.
After that I came down to Laguna to help Kip with his lines every week.
Back at the Laguna Playhouse on opening night, a bodiless voice announces, “Please turn off your cellphones and unwrap your candies, the show is about to begin.” Black sheath whispers to her friend, “I’m excited!” The audience hushes as the stage lights come up on three guys sitting around a card table playing poker.
Oscar Madison makes his entrance. The audience applauds. I get a tingly feeling in my chest. My theatrical sixth sense is back. This couple is going to have a long and successful run.