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The Odd Couple
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Carol Rosegg
Nathan Lane & Matthew Broderick in The Odd Couple
Sure, marriage is an institution, but who wants to live in an institution? The leads in Neil Simon's 1965 stage sitcom The Odd Couple can't help themselves. Abandoned by their wives, roommates Oscar and Felix end up acting out their own irritable parody of the wedded state—only they skip the honeymoon and go straight to the bickering over money, chores and what to watch on TV.

There may be important lessons to be learned from this mismatched bachelor idyll, but in the lightly tetchy, utterly agreeable world of Simon, the platitudes are as canned as the jokes, and about as nourishing. Director Joe Mantello's hyper-competent, super-sold-out new Broadway revival is savvy enough not to linger over the play's awkward notes of pathos. Instead it grooves winningly on the play's tightly coiled comic rhythms, to the point that it almost sings. Even the clunkers that Simon compulsively crams between the better zingers, as if he's got to fill some joke-per-page quota, breeze by with a smile.

Whether a light breeze deserves such an intent revival depends entirely on the chemistry between Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the box-office golden boys of The Producers, who more or less revisit here the familiar Bialystock/Bloom dynamic of tummler and nebbish, only with the crazy-making shoe on the other foot. Here it is fragile, allergy-prone Felix, played by Broderick, who causes the entire ruckus, not the lovably slobby loudmouth Oscar, played by Lane.

But lightning hasn't quite struck twice here. Lane, as always, is a kind of master of ceremonies; he doesn't play characters so much as he plays our unflappable, aside-wielding guide to the funhouse of their lives. He gives Oscar's endless one-liners a grand snap and plays his double and triple takes with jazzy confidence; you get the feeling he could steam and vent all night, and what's more, that it would be a joy to watch. Dressed by costumer Ann Roth in the uniform of the eternal frat boy—rubber-toe sneakers, backwards baseball cap, sweaty T-shirt under an open, untucked shirt, Bermuda shorts or rumpled khakis—Lane shambles around John Lee Beatty's shabby-genteel apartment set, hunched over in a paradoxical state of tensed-up nonchalance, as if waiting to be provoked into a shrugging retort. It's the perfect Neil Simon posture, in other words.

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As the ingenuous, anal-retentive Felix, Broderick has a grinning, robotic poise that is oddly compelling, if not particularly funny. The droll, distancing smirk that colors all of Broderick's work makes Felix's self-dramatizing peculiarities—the neat-freakiness, the stultifying caution, the passive-aggressive meekness—seem like an elaborate put-on, even a form of psychosis. Whether threatening suicide if he's thrown out or whipping a cloth maniacally across the chairs to clean and re-clean them, Broderick's Felix seems to be play-acting a strange drama of his own.

The blame here must rest with Simon. Apart from a series of bewhiskered vaudevillian jokes, the most dated thing about The Odd Couple is panicky, pathetic Felix. This sensitive guy—who is obsessed with cooking and cleaning, whose aerosol-spraying ritual is the walking definition of swish, who goes so far as plan a luau theme around his buddies' Friday night poker game—is not, as we might be tempted to think, in any way sexually ambiguous, confused or closeted. Instead, he's the butt of the faintly sexist gag that positions him as the "wife" in this fictive marriage by giving him purportedly womanish characteristics. Look, Simon practically nudges us: He argues like a female, he throws like a girl—what a nut! This isn't just less than hilarious. It feels positively tone-deaf.

The supporting cast is offhandedly excellent, bearing out again Mantello's gift for easy-flowing
©2005 Carol Rosegg
Jessica Stone & Olivia d'Abo in
The Odd Couple
ensemble work (Take Me Out, Glengarry Glen Ross). The poker buddies, in particular, are well cast and subtly contrasted. There are the thoroughly whipped married guys: The lumbering Brad Garrett, as a sneakily wise Murray the cop, and Lee Wilkof, as the high-waisted simp Vinnie. And there are the cynical bachelors: Peter Frechette, as pocket-protector-wearing accountant Roy, and Rob Bartlett, as the matter-of-factly bumptious Speed. As a tittering pair of Cockney sisters, who happen to be conveniently single, randy and living upstairs, Olivia d'Abo and Jessica Stone wriggle and giggle their way gracefully through a thankless comic standoff with the unprepossessing Felix.

A brisk evening of low-impact high-jinks, this new Odd Couple is as crisply assembled, and digests as easily, as one of Felix's BLT sandwiches. But the flavor is more white bread than pumpernickel toast, and the ingredients aren't exactly market-fresh.

The Odd Couple
By Neil Simon
Directed by Joe Mantello
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 10/27/2005 3:47:00 PM


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