The regular weekly poker game is under way on a hot summer night in the smoke-filled living room of the once well-kept and fashionable upper West Side apartment of divorced newspaper sports writer Oscar Madison. In the three months since his wife had divorced him, the easygoing, pleasant, but slovenly Oscar has managed to litter his New York City apartment with dirty dishes, discarded clothes, old newspapers, empty bottles, and other trash. Hosting the poker game, Oscar is serving his friends warm drinks (the refrigerator has been broken for two weeks) and green sandwiches that he declares were made from “either very new cheese or very old meat.” The other poker players are Oscar’s friends—Murray, Speed, Roy, and Vinnie. Felix Ungar, Oscar’s best friend, is uncustomarily late for the game, and all the poker players are worried about him.
A phone call to Felix’s wife reveals that Felix and his wife have just separated after twelve years of marriage and that Felix has disappeared, sending his wife a telegram threatening suicide. When Felix finally arrives at the poker game, all the players attempt to calm him by pretending that everything is normal. They steer Felix away from the twelfth-story window of the apartment and wait anxiously as Felix goes into the bathroom. Felix eventually confesses that he had swallowed a whole bottle of pills from his wife’s medicine cabinet and had then vomited. After the poker players depart, Oscar consoles Felix, who reveals that he does not want a divorce and had stayed up the whole night before in a cheap Times Square hotel room considering a suicidal jump from the window. In an attempt to calm and help his friend, Oscar suggests that Felix move in with him. Felix, a fussy and compulsively neat person, agrees and immediately begins to clean up Oscar’s apartment.
At the next poker game, two weeks later, the atmosphere is very different because Felix is in charge. The apartment is immaculate, and Felix is taking orders for food and drink, serving carefully made sandwiches and ice-cold beer, reminding the poker players to put their glasses on coasters so as not to leave rings on the freshly polished table. A Pure-A-Tron air freshener eliminates the cigar and cigarette smoke, and Felix has even used disinfectant on the playing cards. This fussy behavior unnerves some of the other players as much as it had Oscar during the preceding week, and the game breaks up prematurely. Oscar is irritated but feels guilty about his anger and suggests to Felix that they lack excitement in their lives. Oscar suggests that they take out to dinner two single British women, Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, from an upstairs apartment. Felix is not enthusiastic about the plan because he still misses his wife and children and wants to save his marriage, but Felix finally agrees to give the idea a try if he can cook the meal himself in Oscar’s apartment.
A few days later the evening comes for the dinner, and it is a disaster. Oscar is an hour late coming home from work and Felix is incensed because his carefully planned meal is jeopardized. When Gwendolyn and Cecily arrive, Felix is nervous, morose, and maudlin. Furthermore, he chills the romantic atmosphere Oscar is trying to create by tearfully sharing with the women snapshots of his wife and children. Nostalgically remembering their own spouses, Gwendolyn and Cecily join Felix in tears and decide that Felix is sensitive and sweet. Oscar is frustrated and angry that the potentially romantic evening has been ruined until the women suggest that they shift the dinner to their apartment upstairs. Oscar’s spirits are lifted until Felix refuses to cooperate, citing his loyalty to his wife and children. Before going upstairs alone, Oscar angrily offers the twelfth-story window as a possible place for Felix to jump from.
The next evening Oscar is still not talking to Felix. When Oscar comes home from work, Felix is preparing for the night’s poker game, cleaning up...
(The entire section is 2,686 words.)