Neil Simon's The Odd Couple Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Original music by Marc Shaiman. Cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, with Rob Bartlett, Olivia d'Abo, Peter Frechette, Jessica Stone, Lee Wilkof, and Brad Garrett.
Secondhand smoke has rarely been as welcome a sight or as pleasant an odor as when the curtain rises on the revival of The Odd Couple that just opened at the Brooks Atkinson. The sight of it billowing from the stage immediately plunges you into the entropic eight-room apartment of Oscar Madison, a fixture of 1965 that nonetheless looks like it barely withstood one of this year's nastiest hurricanes. Still, no dump of a divorced man's dwelling has ever seemed so inviting or so fragrant.
Credit is due scenic designer John Lee Beatty, smoothly executing his fourth design for the current season of Broadway plays with this high-ceiling, exposed-beam, yet cavelike refuge. But more important are the contributions of two other men: Neil Simon, the play's legendary author, and Nathan Lane, the two-time Tony winner who makes the grunge and grime of Oscar and his apartment impossibly appetizing.
The two are a tight-fitting match. Simon, who built his career on writing comedies so deadly serious that they deliver incapacitating laughs, was at the top of his form for the mid-60s Odd Couple. If you only know it from the movie (starring original Broadway Oscar Walter Matthau alongside Jack Lemmon) or the long-running TV show, you have only a basic understanding of one of Broadway's busiest, breeziest comedies. And Lane is one of today's few theatre stars possessing acting and comic chops well-toned enough to tackle the challenge of reviving Simon's masterpiece for Broadway and not disappoint.
And disappoint he doesn't. While Oscar might be only a hop, skip, and a slump away from The Producers's Max Bialystock, for which Lane deservedly won a 2001 Tony, they're dissimilar enough. Max thrived on arrogance, bluster, the determination to do what's wrong at any cost; Oscar, worn down by his newly single life, is fighting a losing battle against giving up and giving into himself. If the two momentarily seem one and the same, it's only because Lane's voice, laser-focused timing, and always-right line delivery make them equally memorable creations.
But Oscar alone can't make you enjoy filth this much - that requires someone capable of making the garbage look good. That, unfortunately, would be Matthew Broderick. Ostensibly playing obsessive neatnik Felix Ungar, who moves in with Oscar following the dissolution of his own marriage, Broderick delivers here an unsavory, unsatisfying performance polluted with the ghost of a number of his previous roles, including (or most especially) Matthew Broderick, Broadway Star.
Or, if you prefer, his last Main Stem star turn, Leo Bloom, the accountant-turned-conman he played opposite Lane in The Producers. But his Leo possessed an offbeat, seat-of-his-pants enthusiasm that made an otherwise studied and uncomfortable portrayal work. Playing off shooting-comet Lane, whose energy all but lit Broadway's million lights, he seemed somehow appropriate in his inappropriateness.
Felix, however, can't be completely subservient, simply dragged along by the more forceful Oscar's whims. He must be as visibly destructive in his way as Oscar is in his, an irresistible force colliding with Oscar's immovable object to create an explosion of tension and hilarity that rocks the theater and your own preconceptions about how you present yourself to the world.
While the personal disorder Lane presents always feels like an organic extension of Oscar's personality, Broderick's peccadilloes are affected, false, and thoroughly un-Felix. (Oscar's line, "Why do you have to control every single thought in your head?", has an unfortunate resonance.) Never have I seen a Felix cede so many laughs to his costar; even when Broderick delivers a punch line, it's Lane's reactions that bring down the house, giving the audience one joke for the price of two. The clash of wills between the two is so mismatched that almost none of the jokes built on their ever-increasing enmity land with any real force.
A good director could waylay these problems, but Joe Mantello can't. One of New York's most inexplicably in-demand directors, here he demonstrates his flawless talent for staging what's in a script's stage directions. But, as with, well, all of his recent productions, he can't fuse the show's volatile elements into something that works in live performance. Broderick's problems are severe, but can't sink the show by themselves; only the lack of dramatic flow, comedic builds, and the near-musical rhythms governing Simon's symphonic dialogue can do that. Mantello provides a lack of all three.
This is even evident in the supporting performances, which are allowed to shine but never sparkle. Brad Garrett, Rob Bartlett, Peter Frechette, and Lee Wilkof mine enough laughs as Oscar and Felix's prattling poker buddies, but don't provide the required sense of a stable community to contrast the combustible Oscar-Felix "marriage." Olivia d'Abo and Jessica Stone, as the British Pigeon sisters who live upstairs and provide a potential outlet for the men's social frustrations, aren't entirely successful, but imbue their tittering and head-bobbing women with a fine quirky charm.
There's no charm at all in what Broderick does. His feel-sorry-for-me voice and constantly constipated physicality are how an uninventive college student might conceive Felix, whose peculiar penchant for divining order in chaos he might not innately understand. However, one expects better of Broderick, who has two Tonys of his own, a bevy of film and stage credits, and shouldn't have this much trouble resembling an adult, human male from the 1960s.
Instead, he reads like a cross-dresser frantically searching for his perfect drag role. When, at the apex of one of Felix and Oscar's scuffles, he prances about the room swiveling his hips, is he preparing to play Lady Bracknell in a Charles Ludlam Importance of Being Earnest? Or does his stiffly choreographed waving of a can of air freshener, as if it were a lighter at a rock concert, while fixing on Oscar with a playful glassiness in his eyes mean he'd rather play the maid in a French farce? The world, thankfully, may never know.
Unfortunately, it also won't know what miracles Lane and Simon could work
with a top-flight Felix capable of matching Lane's detailed portrayal of
superior slovenliness with equally compelling compulsive cleanliness. That,
of course, is the ideal Odd Couple, and with Lane, this one is more than
halfway there. But who would have ever thought that Oscar would have it so
together, and Felix would be such an utter mess?