Does anyone do a comic explosion better than Nathan Lane? Not likely. And the proof of Lane's combustible expertise can be found on stage at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the actor is erupting nightly as the perpetually sloppy Oscar Madison in a laugh-filled revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple."
Lane is the spark that drives this high-powered production, which also stars Matthew Broderick as the ultra-fastidious Felix Ungar, Oscar's mismatched roommate. The two performers, who cemented their professional partnership in a little something called "The Producers," have now honed their interplay into high comedic art.
Watch Lane as he starts with a low rumble of exasperation and gradually builds into a fury at Broderick's obsessive-compulsive antics. The face twitches, then reddens as the bellowing starts. But the actor is more than just loud. Lane knows how to land a laugh, and he gets every one that Simon has written in this saga of two divorced - or soon-to-be divorced - men trying to start new lives.
Broderick's fussy Felix is a close relative to his nerdy Leo Bloom in "The Producers." Like the lovelorn Leo, Felix is a romantic at heart. He still pines for his wife, Frances, even after she throws him out of the house. Broderick's physicality is perfect, capturing the man's considerable neuroses in every twitch and jerk.
The time wisely has not been updated. The year is still 1965, which is when "The Odd Couple" first opened on Broadway - with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. Plays were more leisurely in those days, and this one does take its time. Originally, it was done in three acts, which director Joe Mantello has compacted into two.
If you look beyond the one-liners (and there are plenty of those), Simon has something to say about marriage or, at least, relationships. The relationship between Oscar and Felix is a marriage of sorts, with a honeymoon (well, at least a cordiality), bickering, tension and then outright warfare as the two men get to know each other.
Simon frames the play with several poker-playing scenes populated with cronies of the two men. Mantello has rounded up a quartet of superb character actors, each one a distinct physical type. The parade includes a towering Brad Garrett as Murray, a dimwitted good-guy policeman; the portly, henpecked Vinnie (Lee Wilkofs Mutt to Garrett's Jeff); Rob Bartlett's rumpled, grumpy Speed; and Peter Frechette's barking, chain-smoking Roy.
In Act 2, Simon introduces the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily, the giggling British neighbors who live in Oscar's Riverside Drive apartment building. The women, portrayed with goofy, high-pitched charm by Olivia d'Abo and Jessica Stone, are lusted over by Oscar and won over by Felix.
Designer John Lee Beatty's sprawling set of Oscar's rambling Manhattan apartment gets a big laugh when it changes from Oscar-messy to Felix-immaculate.
This revival of "The Odd Couple" is a throwback to the days when Broadway still produced light, popular entertainment, a form that, even in 1965, was already being threatened by television comedy. "The Odd Couple" itself became a TV sitcom and its stars, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, are probably better known for their portrayals of Oscar and Felix than the Broadway originals.
Yet Mantello and his cast have taken the comedy seriously and that's what makes it so funny.
And it doesn't matter what any critic thinks. The show is sold out through April 2, although standing-room tickets are available the day of performance. And if Lane and Broderick have a good time, who knows, they might extend the run. Let's hope so.
When the curtain goes up on the revival of "The Odd Couple," Neil Simon's 1965 comedy, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, you see the real stars of the production -Rob Bartlett, Brad Garrett and Lee Wilkof - playing a heated game of poker.
Unless you have spent the last year in Lhasa, you know that the reason for this revival was to re-team Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick of "The Producers" in the roles of the slob Oscar and the finicky Felix, forced to become roommates by their impending divorces.
But let's come to Oscar and Felix in a little bit.
Speed (Bartlett) and Vinnie (Wilkof) were the sort of guys you used to see behind the counters of newsstands and candy stores. Murray (Garrett, from "Everybody Loves Raymond") is a cop, from a time when New York's Finest could all trace their lineage to the lower East Side.
What Speed and Vinnie do we never learn. It doesn't matter. These quintessential New Yorkers, like the Manhattoes three centuries ago, were displaced by a new wave - the investment bankers and financial analysts who landed here in the '80s.
It seems a miracle that these three brilliant character actors have been able to conjure up the gruff, mournful voices, the squints, the nervous anger, the ulcer-prone jitteriness of this lost tribe so beautifully.
Peter Frechette, who plays an accountant, adds his own high-strung energy, but it is not as focused as that of his partners.
I have been dwelling at length on these inspired actors, who appear onstage barely 20 minutes, because it is so awkward to have to deal with The Stars, who seem sadly miscast.
At times, Lane and Broderick remind you of "The Producers"' Max and Leo, though at a lower energy level. Lane falls back on his stock mannerisms -the look of outrage with a conspiratorial glance at the audience, the braying Broderick seems totally at a loss.
Neither of them -nor director Joe Mantello - appears to have given any consideration to the characters Simon has written.
Oscar, after all, is supposed to be a sportswriter. Maybe the guys here at The News are not representative of the breed, but none of them is quite as hysterical as Lane. (Simon does specify that Oscar writes for the Post - maybe that explains it.)
Broderick is supposed to be a man pining for his kids. But he's so boyish, it's hard to believe him as a devoted father. Both actors fall back on shtick.
We never get any inkling of a genuine relationship between the two. When it fails apart, it just seems another failed joke.
Admittedly, the play is dated. Forty years ago, Felix's fussiness and his interest in classy food were titillating because they were considered unmanly. Nowadays, the only place that might cause titters is - maybe – Lhasa.
Because neither of them registers real hunger for female companionship, the scene with the Pigeon sisters (Jessica Stone and Olivia d'Abo) fails flat.
John Lee Beatty's set conveys the shabbiness of Oscar's rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment splendidly. Ann Roth's costumes - especially for the stars - evoke the raffishness of bygone New York.
Apparently the entire run is already sold out. If you haven't got a ticket, you've lucked out.
Steal tickets if you can - the chemistry's still there.
Burdened by nearly impossible expectations, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick proved the right couple for Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Wearing the albatrosses around their necks as jauntily as neckties, Broadway's highest-paid double act performed impeccably in roles that bear the burden of theatrical legend.
What, with Art Carney and Walter Matthau in the original 1965 stage production; Jack Lemmon and Matthau in the 1968 movie; Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, long on television, then (briefly) on stage - Simon's yin-and-yang pairing of neatnik with slobnik is rich with glory.
When the impossibly prissy Felix Ungar (Broderick) is thrown out by his wife and comes to live with his best buddy, a divorced sportswriter, Oscar Madison (Lane), it's soon apparent that here is a twain that can never meet. It's going to be a bumpy journey - and a hilarious play.
Simon has been called, often disparagingly, the king of the one-liners, but here, as when Oscar describes Felix as a man "who wears a seat-belt at a drive-in movie," they add something to the character and action.
The play's construction is as calculated as architecture. From its smoky beginning at Oscar's apartment to the intervention of the crazy Pigeon sisters living upstairs and on to the climactic poker party, Simon doesn't put a building brick wrong.
Director Joe Mantello (Mike Nichols did the honors back in '65) is attentive to the play's every twist and nuance. He acutely accents the possibilities for visual humor, deftly caught by John Lee Beatty's period-perfect settings and the costumes by Ann Roth.
The casting is superb (at these prices, it should be) and the visuals, delicious Broderick and Lane are highly physical performers, and Mantello also wrests humor from the sheer contrast in height between Lane and the towering Brad Garrett (making his Broadway debut, after TV's "I Love Raymond," as Murray the cop) and the avian movements of the chirping Pigeon sisters.
Along with the admirably deliberate Garrett, Oscar's poker buddies include the seasoned and fussy Lee Wilkof; a continuously but nicely harassed Rob Bartlett and a properly distressed Peter Frechette.
As that very British brace of Pigeons, Gwendolyn (Olivia d'Arbo) and Cecily (Jessica Stone) exude a nice blend of scattiness, sexiness and sweetness.
Of course, it's Oscar and Felix audiences have come to see, and they will not be disappointed. Lane, with his roly-poly body, Gothic-arched eyebrows and gravelly voice that travels the five boroughs, makes a perfect Oscar - explosively short-fused, quietly sentimental, with the manners and body language of a lovable lout.
As in "The Producers," but with a quite different dynamic, Broderick's wimpily hypochondriac and terminally prim Felix makes the perfect foil: a Laurel to Lane's Hardy.
Hardy laurels all round.
Odd is not the word for this couple. How could an adjective suggesting strangeness or surprise apply to a production so calculatedly devoted to the known, the cozy, the conventional?
Consider the basic ingredients of the bland, mechanical new revival of Neil Simon's "Odd Couple," starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater: a play that may be the most famous American comedy of the last 50 years, thanks largely to its reincarnation as a television series that flickers on forever in the twilight of syndication; and two actors perceived as being to Broadway what Redford and Newman once were to Hollywood - chemistry-igniting buddies whose pairing automatically spells box office.
The mere thought of the combination whispers sexy words you imagine embroidered on needlepoint pillows on beds of Broadway producers everywhere: "Familiarity breeds success." Should you doubt the wisdom of such a mantra, know that this limited run sold out well before it officially opened last night, piling up more than $21 million, a record for a straight play. Decent seats are said to be had now only through extortion, robbery, the selling of a child or a body part or, more mundanely, the willingness to wait in the long, testy cancellation lines that form before each show.
Think twice before giving up a kid or a left arm. You might need them for that apocalyptic day when Britney Spears comes to Broadway in "The Sound of Music." If you have seen any of the more celebrated earlier productions of "The Odd Couple" - the original 1965 staging (starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney); the 1968 movie (with Matthau and Jack Lemmon) or even the 1970's sitcom (with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall) - you have probably already experienced a more authentic interpretation of this show. And if you were lucky enough to see Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick in the hit musical "The Producers," you have definitely already experienced more satisfying versions of the performances they are giving here.
The initial announcement that Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick would be appearing in Mr. Simon's classic portrait of battling, middle-aged, newly single roommates had the ring of "ah, but of course." As the title characters of "The Producers," these actors set a standard for precision comic camaraderie unknown since - well, possibly since Matthau and Carney in "The Odd Couple." Playing the timid accountant Leo Bloom and the brazen con man Max Bialystock, Mr. Broderick and Mr. Lane had already nailed down the yin-yang thing. Why shouldn't that translate directly into the characters of the television news writer Felix Ungar (Mr. Broderick), the depressive, obsessive neatnik, and the sportswriter Oscar Madison (Mr. Lane), the high-testosterone slob?
As this set-to-a-metronome production, directed by Joe Mantello, demonstrates with such clarity, the comic languages of "The Producers" and "The Odd Couple" are not the same. The humor of "The Odd Couple" is rooted in watching ordinary guys, equipped with an extraordinary arsenal of zingers, turn each other into irreconcilable caricatures of themselves, the way people do in bad marriages. The characters in "The Producers" are stylishly drawn cartoons, shaped by the performers' delighted awareness of belonging to the intoxicating, heightened reality of musical comedy.
A similar self-consciousness informs Mr. Lane's and Mr. Broderick's attitudes in "The Odd Couple," which automatically creates a distance between them and the men they are playing. Their performances are framed in quotation marks. Mr. Lane is "doing" macho and slovenly; Mr. Broderick is "doing" repressed and anal-retentive. That's different from being slovenly or anal-retentive. And the gap between doing and being fatally exposes the cogs and gears of Mr. Simon's impeccably assembled comic clockwork.
Mr. Lane tries with admirable if largely unavailing diligence to overcome this disconnect. Especially in the first act, when the newly separated and suicidal Felix arrives late to the poker game at Oscar's Upper West Side apartment, Mr. Lane trots out a masterly array of carefully careless bits of business. His Oscar can't pour a drink without the liquor dancing right over the glass's edge or open a bag of potato chips without sending them into flight.
But Mr. Lane is by nature a Broadway baby, and his line readings are sometimes frilled with self-parodyingly showbizzy flourishes and intonations. And while he wears his slob's costumes (Ann Roth is the designer) with an appropriate Neanderthal slouch, when this Oscar spiffs up, for work or to impress the ladies, he turns into a well-groomed clotheshorse despite himself. (He might make an excellent Felix.)
It's Mr. Broderick who gives off the vibe of someone who would rather go through life with his shirttail flapping. Although Oscar describes Felix as "the only man in the world with clenched hair," this Felix can't resist disarranging his slicked coiffure when he's distraught. Recycling the adenoidal voice and poker face he used in "The Producers" (and more recently in the Off Broadway revival of "The Foreigner"), Mr. Broderick often comes across as a dead man walking. Wiping plates, plumping cushions or spritzing air freshener, he seems less obsessive than robotic.
Mr. Broderick's impassivity shifts the expected balance of energy in "The Odd Couple." Instead of a fidgety, fussy Felix goading an impassive Oscar into explosion, it's Oscar who's the restless dynamo here. (After all, somebody has to show signs of life.) Perhaps because of this inverted equation of character, the men are reduced to batting their one-liners back and forth, as in a Ping-Pong game that has been going on for days. Only in the final scene, when Oscar's and Felix's animosity gets physical, do the actors seem to relax.
Whether it's intentional or not, certain moments summon so exactly the stars' performances in "The Producers" that you wonder where the songs have gone. (Audiences who miss the songs can wait for the forthcoming film.) Mr. Lane's throwing a glass of liquid into the face of Mr. Broderick, who then blots himself like an aggrieved, startled child; Mr. Lane's massaging Mr. Broderick in a horizontal position that could be misconstrued by someone walking in on them - this is pure Max and Leo revisited. (When Mr. Broderick does his big windup for his telling-off of Oscar, you expect him to say, as Leo did to Max: "Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! Fatty!")
There's more oxygen in the room when the supporting cast is around, especially Brad Garrett, a gentle giant as Murray the cop. And Jessica Stone and Olivia d'Abo - as those giggly British birds the Pigeon sisters, who arrive in the show's second half for a date from hell with Oscar and Felix - display the most spontaneous comic flair. (I didn't laugh in earnest until Ms. Stone's Cecily, trying to fill an uncomfortable pause, stared at a bowl on a coffee table and said, "Ah, cashews," a testament to the rule that it's not what you say, but how you say it.)
When the curtain first rises on John Lee Beatty's period-exact 1960's set of Oscar's living room, enhanced by the smoky haze of Kenneth Posner's lighting, the audience applauds happily. It's as if we had all been transported to an older Manhattan, which, mostly because it's in the past, feels safer and more comfortable than present-day New York.
But when Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick show up, their self-consciousness tears the time warp. The impression is of one of those latter-day sitcoms in which the characters dream they've been beamed into an earlier, vintage television series. Which means that the talented stars of this "Odd Couple" are indeed odd men out.