Spruced up and humming like a newly serviced ATM, "The Odd Couple" opened last night with Broadway's reigning power couple, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, reprising the love-hate dynamic that brought them gold-plated glory in "The Producers."
Is their Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar a rerun of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom? Sure it is. Lane's the larger-than-life skirt-chaser again, Broderick the anal-retentive nerd. (It's a messy apartment, not the bilking of little old ladies, that they fight about this time.) Is the revival of Neil Simon's 1965 comedy, later a runaway success on the tube, a blatant attempt to milk a money-minting partnership? Silly! Of course!
The play, its sensibility over the hill and the agitated characters familiar from the TV workout, is not much of a stretch for the talented ensemble, although Broderick seems as if he's still groping for a handle on Felix. Even so, it all goes down surprisingly smoothly. Joe Mantello's production is slick and lively and not tripped up by what would appear an impossible task on this occasion: blowing an audience away. The director seems to know full well that the event is not a birth but a reunion, and the celebration is of, as much as anything, an emergent entertainment conglomerate on Broadway: Call it LaneBrodCo.
Let's say a prayer of thanks, while we're at it, that there are stars of the stage, actors who've spent sufficient time in the footlights, who can inspire this level of interest. "The Odd Couple" is virtually sold out through the end of Lane and Broderick's commitment next year, which means that the most important reviews, delivered via MasterCard and American Express, have already been filed.
And exactly what do receipt holders get at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre? Their money's worth, especially from Lane, whose slob of an Oscar barks and bites with all of that arched-eyebrow, New York-style pique and resignation that he specializes in. He's been surrounded, too, with a bumper crop of supporting players, including the terrific Brad Garrett, late of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Garrett is back in uniform, playing Murray the cop, a regular in Oscar's poker games, and he proves a quick draw with Simon's quips. Rob Bartlett provides an enjoyable supply of cantankerousness as another card player, Speed, and Olivia d'Abo and Jessica Stone bring to Oscar's randy upstairs neighbors, the Pigeon sisters, a juicy ever-readiness to hit the sack.
"The Odd Couple" is widely considered one of Simon's better comedies, and although it offers a slew of choice one-liners, particularly in the progression of Oscar's awareness that his new neat-freak roommate may destroy his sanity, it's ultimately a bit soft and schmaltzy. You never quite believe it when, late in the proceedings, Oscar tells Felix he is his dearest friend in the world; nothing in their makeups, not even the fact that opposites might attract, convinces you that Oscar and Felix could stand each other under virtually any circumstance.
But there is, too, an irresistible side to the sitcom setup, about the pigsty life of a middle-aged divorced guy thrown into turmoil by a man who simply can't stop dusting. Lane's homicidal expressions as Broderick whips out the Lysol yet again remind you of those classic funnymen, from Oliver Hardy to Jackie Gleason, who had a genius for reacting explosively to inane fastidiousness. Where "The Odd Couple" feels out of date, however, is in its rigid idea of behavior it regards as unmasculine, that cooking -- or for that matter, taking care of a house -- is woman's work.
Perhaps Broderick, born just about the time Simon was writing "The Odd Couple," is still trying to figure out this aspect of the play, too. His Felix is a little mannered. You feel at times he's only Felix on the surface, that he's not convinced this character really exists. He does have some funny moments. One comes during a poker game after Felix has moved into Oscar's apartment -- rendered perfectly by set designer John Lee Beatty -- and thoroughly sanitized the place. Emerging from Oscar's kitchen, Broderick rolls out the snacks on a tea trolley and serves them to the stunned players, as if he were Betty Crocker incarnate. He's less accomplished, though, at conveying the operatic fullness of Felix's tics, of how his brandishing of Clorox and Electrolux could strike someone as tyrannical.
Fortunately, good old reliable Lane is at his side. Whether he's passing out sandwiches from under an armpit or taking a detergent-based revenge on Felix's linguine, Lane makes us his ally in Oscar's determination to live in filth and anger. In fact, you like him so much, you're tempted to make an offer on the room from which he evicts Felix.
The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon. Directed by Joe Mantello. Lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; original music, Marc Shaiman. With Peter Frechette, Lee Wilkof. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., New York. Call 800-755-4000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.