Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
The Odd Couple begins with a poker game in progress in the apartment of a divorced sportswriter, Oscar Madison. Although the apartment is spacious and furnished in good taste, it is quite untidy and filled with smoke.
The poker game, at present attended by only four of the six players, is a tightly choreographed visual gag. Vinnie is nervously checking his watch; Roy is watching Speed, who is staring at Murray, who is ponderously trying to shuffle and deal the cards. One usual member of this group, Felix Ungar, is absent, and the others are worried about him, for he is high-strung and prone to paranoia. Oscar, a rumbling, grumbling slob with apparently no worries, appears and offers his friends a choice of green or brown sandwiches, which he identifies as “either very new cheese or very old meat.”
A call to Felix’s wife, Frances, reveals that she threw Felix out and soon after received a suicide telegram from him. When Felix finally appears, the others rush to make Oscar’s apartment suicide-proof and scarcely allow him to go to the bathroom by himself. After the friends leave, Oscar attempts to calm Felix down and find out what has happened. Admitting that he is not easy to live with, Felix lists all the reasons why Frances would want a divorce: He has allergies, so that Frances could never wear perfume; he insisted that she list every expense to the penny; he recooked all the meals; he recleaned the house after Frances and a cleaning woman had cleaned it; he was kicked out of a marriage counselor’s office; and he is a total fussbudget. Feeling sorry for his friend, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him. Felix consents only after Oscar agrees to let him do all the cooking.
Act 2, scene 1 takes place two weeks later. It is eleven o’clock in the evening and another poker game is in session, but this one is different. The room is not simply clean; it is “sterile,” according to Neil Simon’s stage directions. Felix is happily serving refreshments and reminding the players to use coasters under their glasses. Murray and Vinnie like the new atmosphere, but Speed and Roy feel uncomfortable. The game breaks up when Roy discovers that Felix has washed the cards with disinfectant.
After the others leave, Felix and Oscar fight about Felix’s constant cleaning and talking. Oscar suggests that they both begin dating. Felix hesitates, but Oscar convinces him to have dinner with two sisters, a divorcee and a widow, who also live in their apartment building. Felix finally agrees, insisting that he will do the cooking.
Scene 2 takes place a few days later. The table is beautifully set for four, but no one is in sight. Suddenly, Oscar enters the front door, cheerfully addressing the unseeen Felix. Felix complains that Oscar was to have been home by seven; it is now eight, and dinner is ruined. The Pigeon sisters arrive; with little help from Felix, Oscar tries to entertain them. When Oscar goes to the kitchen to mix drinks, Felix nervously makes an attempt to keep the conversation going. Unable to stay away from the subject of his family and divorce, he puts Cecily and Gwendolyn in the mood to talk about their absent mates. Oscar returns to the party to find all in tears. Not knowing how else to handle the situation, he sends Felix off to the kitchen to check on the London broil. Oscar apologizes for Felix’s behavior, only to learn that the women adore Felix and want to take care of him. The sisters suggest going to their apartment for “pot luck.” Oscar is delighted, but Felix refuses to go. Finally, in disgust, Oscar deliberately opens the windows wide in a mock invitation for Felix to jump, and silently stalks out to face the sisters alone.
Act 3 takes place the next evening. The room is set for another poker game. Felix is vacuuming the rugs as Oscar enters, still angry over the events of the night before. Oscar pulls the vacuum plug from the wall, drops cigar ashes on the floor, and walks on the couch, smashing the freshly plumped pillows. As Felix takes the vacuum cleaner to the kitchen, Oscar dumps the ashtrays on the floor, then settles down to read the newspaper. Felix returns with a plate of spaghetti and passes it under Oscar’s nose to make sure Oscar is aware of what he is missing. Not to be outdone, Oscar gets the spray can of air freshener and circles Felix, spraying all around him.
Finally they talk to each other. Oscar gives Felix the key to the back door and warns him to stay out of his way and to get the spaghetti off the poker table. “It’s not spaghetti. It’s linguini!” Felix laughs. Oscar reacts by throwing the plate against the kitchen wall, exclaiming, “Now it’s garbage!” Felix reminds Oscar to walk on the papers because the floor is still wet. Oscar explodes and commands Felix to leave; their “marriage” is over. As a parting shot, Felix warns that whatever happens to him now will be on Oscar’s head. Relenting, Oscar asks him to stay, but Felix leaves just before Murray and Vinnie arrive for the poker game.
Learning of Felix’s departure, the friends warn Oscar that Felix may do something foolish. As they express concern for Felix’s safety, the doorbell rings. It is Gwendolyn; she has come for Felix’s things. Cecily appears, pulling Felix with her, entreating him to stay with them instead of going to a hotel. He finally agrees to stay a few days. The sisters return to their apartment to prepare cocktails and dinner, leaving Felix to gather his things from Oscar’s apartment. Felix thanks Oscar for kicking him out. Having actually learned something from each other, the friends part amicably.
As the poker game continues, Oscar reminds the others, “This is my house, not a pig sty,” as he picks up stray butts and places them in an ashtray.
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In The Odd Couple Neil Simon employs dramatic techniques that hark back to the comedies of Aristophanes. The play is filled with physical humor and visual gags. The opening scene of Oscar’s smoke-filled apartment with dirty dishes, discarded clothing, empty and half-filled glasses, and carelessly tossed-about newspapers surrounding four equally disheveled poker players set the comic mood for the action to follow. The scene of a rampaging Oscar walking on the furniture and dumping ashtrays on the floor while Felix fusses about with dust rag and vacuum cleaner is reminiscent of the broad farce of Aristophanes and Menander. The simple act of opening a beer becomes a gag when Oscar sprays beer over table and players alike. The beginning of act 3 is a classic bit of pantomimic farce, as each man studiously and silently annoys the other.
Simon also brilliantly incorporates the device of repetition. A poker game is the unifying element for all three acts of The Odd Couple. In act 1 the game serves to reveal personalities by presenting information about Felix and Oscar as well as about other characters. During the game the audience learns that Oscar lives alone; this explains the condition of the apartment. Oscar makes his entrance bearing warm beer and brown and green sandwiches of questionable content. Felix’s personality is revealed before he is actually seen. Through stories such as the one about the toilet-paper will, the poker-playing buddies disclose that Felix is a hypochondriac, given to sudden physical quirks and compulsive neatness and subject to unusual fears.
The poker game opening the second act reinforces the tension between the mismatched Felix and Oscar. The apartment is neat, the floor is shining under ten coats of wax, and Felix is serving sandwiches with the crusts trimmed. Upset by all Felix’s fussing, Oscar facetiously offers to buy Murray’s gun. Simon tightens the structure of this scene even more by using the other players as a counterpoint to the tension between Felix and Oscar. Vinnie and Murray enjoy the changes Felix has made in their weekly games, but Speed and Roy side with Oscar.
The last poker game at the end of the play reveals slight changes in both Felix and Oscar—changes that support Simon’s major theme of the need for less selfishness and more understanding and compromise in relationships. Although Felix and Oscar will never completely change, they do seem to have learned something from each other. Felix is more independent, and Oscar is more concerned about his apartment and his responsibilities to his wife and child.
The technique of pairing two opposites is an old comic device brought to a high art by Simon in the slob Oscar and the compulsively neat Felix. Even though the technique is old, Simon does not sacrifice character to plot for the sake of comedy and a fast laugh. The amusing lines and comic situations result from the relationship between these two very real, very particular individuals. Oscar and Felix do not exist as generic types simply to be an excuse for physical gags and verbal jokes. These men could not say or do anything other than what they say or do in this situation. They have become the prototype for all “odd couples” within the American cultural psyche.
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*New York City
*New York City. A native of New York City’s Bronx, playwright Neil Simon placed most of his early plays in New York apartments, and his critics often suggest that these largely uniform urban settings limit his appeal. Others suggest that Simon’s comedy transcends place, and the enduring success of The Odd Couple in its many manifestations (stage plays, male and female versions, film, and television) would seem to prove this.
Oscar’s apartment. In the play’s initial stage directions, Simon indicates that Oscar’s Riverside Drive address suggests a certain gentility and that the grotesquely untidy state of the apartment seems a recent development given the stylish furnishings of Oscar’s wife, who has been away for three months. This subtle visual impression is only reinforced in the dialogue by Oscar’s quip in the first scene that the maid quit (after his wife and children left) because cleaning up after him became too difficult. However, Oscar’s comic messiness is explicitly contrasted in the play’s second act with the extreme tidiness introduced by Felix after he moves in, takes over the housekeeping, and creates the incompatible “marriage.” At the end of the play, Felix relinquishes control over the appearance of the apartment and moves out. Oscar’s last words imply that he will be tidier in the future.
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1965 was a period of considerable turmoil in the United States because President Lyndon Johnson, despite his claims to the contrary, was escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and many citizens (mostly young people) were protesting, especially on college campuses around the nation. In February, a month before The Odd Couple opened on Broadway in March, U.S. bombers were retaliating against North Vietnamese forces for attacks on American military advisors in South Vietnam. By March the first deployment of U.S. combat troops was landing in Da Nang and student protests had begun to mushroom. In May, a nation-wide student protest including more than 100 U.S. colleges proclaimed its opposition to the war. Despite this public outcry, Congress authorized the use of U.S. ground troops in direct combat operations and by the end of June full-scale combat involving American troops had commenced. Continued anti-war rallies ultimately divided the American public between "hawks'' and "doves,'' those who supported the escalation of the war and those who opposed it. Often these lines divided on grounds of age and education, with college faculty and students usually leading the ranks of the "doves." As draft calls were doubled to enlist troops for Vietnam, university enrollments rose sharply with young men taking advantage of the draft deferral for college students as a way of avoiding military service.
Adding to the turmoil created by Vietnam were continuing tensions over race relations. In Selma, Alabama, throughout February and March, Martin Luther King, Jr., was leading civil rights protests against state regulations that limited black voter registration. Demonstrations were marred by violence as 200 Alabama state police used whips, night sticks, and tear gas to control the largely black crowds. The Governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace, finally refused police protection for the demonstrators and President Johnson responded by sending 3,000 U.S. National Guard troops to Selma. Elsewhere, in New York City's Harlem, on February 21, civil rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated by black extremists as he prepared to deliver a speech asserting the need for peaceful coexistence between blacks and whites. In the Watts section of Los Angeles in August, race riots erupted in this predominantly black section of the city and nearly 10,000 rioters destroyed 500 square blocks of the city and caused an estimated $40 million of damage. In 1965, race relations in America were obviously volatile and even dangerous to peace and public safety.
An idealistic youth culture in America responded to this turmoil by asserting its belief in the power of a non-denominational spiritual awareness. Poet Allen Ginsberg coined the term "flower power'' when anti-war demonstrators responded to Oakland city police with a strategy of non-violence. Images of young people inserting daisies in the barrels of police anti-riot weapons helped popularize the epithet. Identifying more with Eastern religions than with traditional Christianity these "flower children" embraced "love" and "peace" as attainable foundations for social and political order. This movement was led by "gurus" like Ginsberg, the Hare Krishnas, and Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary, who espoused the use of consciousness-altering drugs such as LSD and marijuana.
The Insulated World of Simon's Play
As with most of his comedies, Simon's The Odd Couple is not seriously concerned with the social, political, and cultural climate of the times in which he wrote. Simon admits that he is not a "political" writer but said in Rewrites: "[I] hope that my plays become a documentation of the times we lived in, at least from the perspective I had to view it all." The Odd Couple might document an upper-middle-class New Yorker's world in 1965 but it would certainly be a very insulated world, quite unconnected to the significant turmoil most of the country was experiencing outside of Oscar's apartment.
It is most likely that this insulated quality derives from Simon's dedication to light, comedic entertainment, a desire to provide the audience with an engaging but untroubling evening of laughter and sentiment. In fact, The Odd Couple might even have been designed to provide its audience with an escape from the sometimes gruesome realities that were taking place on the street and being reported on the evening news. As with most of Simon's comedies, The Odd Couple is a pleasant night in the theatre rather than a disturbing or even thought-provoking one. Its most "serious" issue is divorce, and, in the spirit of light comedy, divorce is treated as a human experience without significantly troubling consequences or ramifications.
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In November of 1963, Simon sold the screen-rights for The Odd Couple to Paramount Pictures before he had even written a single word of the play upon which the movie was eventually based. In his memoir, Rewrites, Simon quotes the single sentence he and his agent used to close the deal: "'Well, it's about two men who are divorced, move in together to save money to pay their alimony, and have the same fights with each other as they did with their wives.'"
This anecdote illustrates the effectiveness of the play's main dramatic conflict. One sentence was all Paramount needed to know that Neil Simon could deliver another hit. The inherently funny conflict between the fussy Felix Ungar and the messy Oscar Madison is subtly established by the end of Act I, is effectively intensified in Act II and the beginning of Act III, and then finally is resolved by their separation and small changes in personality at the end of the play. The conflict is comically ironic because the solution the two men come up with for their separate divorces ends up creating yet another kind of divorce.
In Simon's memoir he recounts that the most difficult part of writing the play was writing the resolution of the conflict in Act III. From the beginning of the rehearsal period, it was clear that the first two acts were effective but that the third act was a disastrous failure. This last act did not get a satisfactory rewrite until well after the first out-of-town performances had begun and Simon had realized that the key to resolving the conflict was bringing the Pigeon sisters back into Act III.
What was not obvious in Simon's one-sentence synopsis for Paramount is that the conflict was based on the clash of extremely different personality types. Ultimately, it is the creation of Oscar and Felix as an "oil and water" mix that makes it possible for The Odd Couple to be tremendously funny.
Simon creates these contrasting character types with the effective use of theatrical detail, most notably with carefully crafted dialogue. Sometimes it is the words of the character himself that establishes the "type" as when when Oscar enters hurriedly in Act I carrying a tray with beer, sandwiches, a can of peanuts, and already opened bags of pretzels and chips. In the visual context of the slovenly apartment, Oscar's balancing act with the snacks already characterizes him as the probable source of the living room mess but his opening words very subtly reinforce this impression. The impatient poker players ask Oscar if he's "in" or "out," that is, whether or not he plans to play this hand. "I'm in! I'm in!" Oscar says, "Go ahead. Deal!" Vinnie asks, "Aren't you going to look at your cards?" and Oscar answers,"What for? I'm gonna bluff anyway." The messy condition of Oscar's apartment has prepared the audience to understand his carefree type immediately, and his opening words characterize him perfectly with elegant economy.
Sometimes Felix and Oscar are effectively characterized by what others say about them. The third line of the play, for example, is Roy's "Geez, it stinks in here," a line that is quickly followed by Vinnie's, "What time is it?" Roy's line implies that the yet-to-appear host is the main cause of the mess they find themselves in, an impression he solidifies with a later line, "You know, it's the same garbage from last week's game. I'm beginning to recognize things." Felix doesn't enter until nearly half-way through the first act, but when he does the following comment from Murray has already characterized Felix as one who organizes his life in a way very unlike Oscar—"Hey, maybe he's in his office locked in the John again. Did you know Felix was once locked in the John overnight. He wrote out his entire will on a half a roll of toilet paper! Heee, what a nut!"
As fictional creations, Oscar and Felix, like the other characters in the play, are "types'' rather than multifaceted characters. They mostly embody single, predominating traits—as in Oscar the carefree, irresponsible, and sloppy type and Felix the precise, uptight, and extremely orderly type. Multifaceted characters are generally considered more artistically sophisticated, but character "types" can be used to great artistic purpose, as in the novels of Charles Dickens for example. Simon draws his character types precisely, using carefully crafted dialogue to reveal their characteristics.
When one thinks of comedy one thinks first of laughter, and The Odd Couple generates belly laughs, mainly because of the verbal cleverness captured in its "one-liners." The "one-liner" is a short response in which the character's retort surprises because of exaggeration or incongruity. For example, when Murray agrees to eat the "brown" sandwich that Oscar brings out of the kitchen, Roy says, "Are you crazy? His refrigerator's been broken for two weeks. I saw milk standing in there that wasn't even in the bottle." The laugh comes from the surprising and exaggerated image of milk so sour it has become a solid substance. Simon perfected his skill at one-liners writing for television shows in the 1950s and no dramatist has ever been more adept at this skill. It has, however, been something of a hindrance to his reputation as a serious artist. Though audiences have been enthusiastic in their response to Simon's comedies, critics have generally been less admiring, often citing the reliance on "one-liners" as a cheap trick more appropriate to the world of sitcom entertainment than the world of art.
Compare and Contrast
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1965: The divorce rate stood at 2.5% per 1,000 people, down from its high after World War II but up from a lower rate in 1960. The divorce rate had risen from 0.9% in 1910 and had jumped dramatically during the second World War to 3.5% in 1945, peaking in 1946 after the war had ended but then dipping steadily to 2.2% in 1960.
Today: The divorce rate stands at around 4.6% per 1,000 people, down from its all-time high of 5.3% in 1981. The rates had risen steadily from 1965 and into the 1970s before peaking and starting another decline in the mid 1980s.
1965: The issue of racial prejudice dominated the news and the social consciences of the American people, but there was no evidence of black characters in the lives of Oscar, Felix, or their poker-playing buddies. The issues of gender consciousness and homophobia were much less prominent, and, in this social climate, few, if any, considered it homoerotically suggestive that two bachelors chose to live together.
Today: Though the issue of racial prejudice is still very much "in the air," it has now been joined or even eclipsed in importance by the issues of feminism and homophobia. Increased awareness of gay issues has made many people more observant of homosexual subtext, and the relationship between Oscar and Felix can, on some levels, be perceived as homoerotic. The feminist movement can also be seen as a factor in Simon's decision to create a "female" version of the play in 1985. In 1982, ABC produced a second sitcom version of the play that featured black actors in the roles of Oscar and Felix.
1965: America was becoming deeply mired in the Vietnam conflict and open hostilities at home over the war would dominate the rest of the decade, culminating in the National Guard opening fire on Kent State University student protestors, killing four and wounding eight on May 4, 1970.
Today: The memories of Vietnam still weigh heavily on America's psyche, though the 1991 Persian Gulf War was seen by many as a ritualistic military victory that in part exorcised the ignominy of that earlier military failure. Novels, plays, and popular films about Vietnam began appearing in the mid 1970s and became so numerous in the 1980s and 1990s that an entire genre of Vietnam War literature has arisen.
1965: The "cold war" begun in the early 1950s was still raging and Communist Russia was seen as a great and dangerous political and military power.
Today: The fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 signaled the economic and political decline of Russia, which is now splintered into many independent states and is suffering from internal dissension and severe economic problems as it attempts to assimilate the Western concepts of democracy and free market capitalism.
1965: Stock prices and trading volume reached an all-time high, with the Dow-Jones industrial average gaining about 11% in 1965 to finish the year at a historic high of 969.
Today: After a major "crash'' in 1987, the stock market continues to climb to dizzying heights, fueled by "baby-boomer" investors who worry that they will not have sufficient funds for retirement. In the greatest "bull" run in the history of the market, the Dow Jones industrial average flirted with the 7,000 mark and some analysts predicted a 10,000 point Dow by the year 2000 while others predicted another crash of monumental proportions.
1965: Simon's opening allusion to "Mr. Maverick" was funny for his audience because the hit television series starring James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick had just ended its 124 episode run on ABC in 1962.
Today: A new generation has become familiar with the Maverick character through the popular 1994 movie starring Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick and Jodi Foster as his spunky romantic interest. James Garner, the original Bret Maverick, took a supporting role in the film as Marshal Zane Cooper and lent considerable nostalgia to the film for an older generation of viewers.
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- The Odd Couple was adapted by Simon himself as a 1968 film starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Jack Lemmon as Felix. Gene Saks, who directed the stage version, also directed the film—which is very faithful to the play script, though occasionally expanded to include street scenes in New York City. In technicolor, running 106 minutes, available from Paramount Home Video and at many video rental stores. A videodisc (Laservision) version is also available from Paramount.
- An animated cartoon called The Oddball Couple premiered in September of 1976 on ABC and was based on the odd couple concept as it featured a slob-like dog named Fleabag and a fussy cat named Spiffy, both freelance magazine writers.
- The Odd Couple was adapted as a 30 minute television show that ran on ABC from September of 1970 to July of 1975 and included 114 episodes. Jack Klugman played Oscar and Tony Randall played Felix, but in the series many other characters—like Oscar's secretary, Myrna, and Felix's daughter, Edna—had to be invented to satisfy the need for greater variety. Available in reruns on some cable television channels like Nickelodeon.
- The Odd Couple was adapted again by ABC in October of 1982 as another 30 minute television series called The New Odd Couple and ran until June of 1983 with black actors Demond Wilson and Ron Glass playing Oscar and Felix. Most episodes were simply recast versions of previous The Odd Couple scripts.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
Berkowitz, Gerald M. "Neil Simon and His Amazing Laugh Machine," in Players Magazine, Vol. 47, no. 3, February-March, 1972, pp. 110-113.
Gottfried, Martin. "Simon, (Marvin) Neil," in Contemporary Dramatists, 3rd edition. St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Kerr, Walter. "A Jigger and a Half," in his Thirty Plays Hath November. Simon & Schuster, 1969, pp. 297-301.
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. Garland, 1997.
Simon, John. "Bad Things," in New York, January 13, 1975, pp. 54-55.
Taubman, Howard. Review of Come Blow Your Horn, in the New York Times, February 23, 1961, p. 31.
Taubman, Howard. Reviews of The Odd Couple, in the New York Times, March 9, 1965, p. 50; March 21, 1965, p. 1.
Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary Dramatists. Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 221-240. Interview with Simon responding to questions as varied as "How did you get started writing plays?" to "How do you feel about theatre critics?"
Johnson, Robert K. Neil Simon. Twayne, 1983. The second and currently last book devoted to Simon's work; includes chapter on The Odd Couple.
McGovern, Edythe. Neil Simon: A Critical Study. Frederick Ungar, 1978. First book-length discussion of Simon; includes chapter on The Odd Couple.
Simon, Neil. Rewrites. Simon & Schuster, 1996. Simon's autobiography through his writing of Chapter Two. Offers some interesting insights into his inspirations and writing processes.
Weise, Judith. "Neil Simon," in Critical Survey of Drama: English Language Series, edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1985. An insightful analysis of Simon's comedies in general (through Biloxi Blues) including perceptive commentary on The Odd Couple.
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“Divorce Broadway Style.” Newsweek, March 22, 1965, 90-91. A contemporary review of the original Broadway production that considered the play limited and predictable, pleasurable but unmemorable and more entertainment than art. Describes the play as “an extended situation with no interior development and with a tacked-on denouement.”
“Divorce Is What You Make It.” Time, March 19, 1965, 66. A contemporary review of the original Broadway production that describes The Odd Couple as “an evening of group hysteria” and “an astutely characterized study in incompatibility.”
Johnson, Robert K. Neil Simon. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A sophisticated book-length treatment of Simon’s work. The chapter on The Odd Couple argues that in this play Simon was pushing beyond the simpler comedy of earlier plays but that the third act is weaker than the first two.
Kerr, Walter. “What Simon Says.” The New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1970, 6, 12, 14, 16. A landmark essay on The Odd Couple. The only major New York drama critic consistently to champion Simon’s work, Kerr considers Simon “to have discovered the exact amount of God’s truth a light comedy can properly contain.”
McGovern, Edythe M. Neil Simon: A Critical Study. 2d ed. New York: Ungar, 1979. The first full-length study of Simon’s work. The chapter on The Odd Couple asserts that Simon’s comedy captures the essence of human incompatibility, irrespective of gender or marital status, and demonstrates that the missing ingredient in such relationships is the inability to compromise.