Back in 1965, the idea of two middle-age New York males — one a slob, the other a neat-freak — sharing an apartment and bickering like husband and wife was ripe comic terrain. Now, it’s just called Chelsea. However, it’s not the rusty vehicle that’s the chief problem in this slick but stale revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Rather, it’s the profound imbalance in the lead performances. As grouchy Oscar Madison, Nathan Lane snuggles deep into his character like a ratty, old favorite sweater. But as uptight neurotic Felix Ungar, Matthew Broderick is on smirking autopilot, sapping any heart from the bond between these quarrelsome buddies.
With two equally committed actors in the title roles and perhaps some textual tinkering, the production might have found fresh angles. But helmer Joe Mantello approaches the work with the reverence given an American classic, ignoring the fact that its comedy has been superseded by sitcom saturation of the buddy/roommate/crypto-gay dynamic, not least in the “Odd Couple” spinoff series. That 1970s TV incarnation has become far more iconic than the play (despite endless regional theater revivals) or the 1968 movie.
The comedy threads together one-liners into a flimsy construct in which very little happens. If there’s a soul to be found in the superficial story of two men whose marriages have failed finding comfort and reciprocal positive influences in their friendship, Mantello and company fail to unearth it. Which makes this reteaming of golden duo Lane and Broderick after two sellout runs in “The Producers” seem nothing more than a moneymaking enterprise without creative justification.
With a $21.5 million advance and all seats for the entire run through April 2 sold before opening night, critical reaction becomes largely irrelevant. But from this talent pool, it was legitimate to expect something more.
The staging certainly doesn’t lack for polish. John Lee Beatty’s set is a perfect facsimile of a roomy Upper West Side apartment reduced through bachelor neglect to a state beyond slovenly and then transformed in the blink of a scene change into pristine order with the arrival of anal-retentive, Lysol-wielding Felix.
Ann Roth’s costumes strike the right understatedly amusing period note; Kenneth Posner’s lighting casts a golden glow; and Marc Shaiman’s jazzy incidental music harks back with verve to the Simon comedy’s infancy.
Likewise the supporting cast yields some appealing turns. As Oscar’s poker game companions, Rob Bartlett’s sour walrus features are put to good deadpan use, Lee Wilkof is an endearing nebbish and Brad Garrett doesn’t stray far from his TV persona but doesn’t need to — he gives a fine display of the sharp comic skills perfected during his years on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Only Peter Frechette — who seems more of a natural for Felix and in fact is understudying Broderick — strains hard for laughs that don’t land.
As ditzy Brits the Pigeon sisters, lured by Oscar to the apartment for a double date, Olivia d’Abo and Jessica Stone do as much as could conceivably be done with their interchangeable tittering, twittering stereotypes.
On the evidence presented here, this type of comedy may not be the normally reliable Mantello’s forte; it may no longer be anyone’s. But why is this “Couple” so underwhelming?
A big part of the problem is the emotional hole created at its center by Broderick, who offers the cartoonish shtick and focus-pulling mannerisms that have become his stage trademark. Sure, Felix is a maddening fuss-budget, but he also has to be a mensch. Broderick rarely takes him beyond whiny and annoying.
With the actor motoring around the stage like a battery-operated nerd doll perpetually breaking out in a nervous half-smile, it’s hard to care much about this supposedly suicidal sad sack when he shows up on Oscar’s door after being turfed out by his wife.
Broderick appears to be making fun of Felix rather than empathizing with his desperate bid to fill the sudden void in his life by making a home for himself and Oscar. Only in act two, when he opens up to the Pigeon sisters about his loss, does the actor begin to seem invested in the character, rather than playing him in quotation marks.
This is all the more frustrating because Lane’s Oscar is a performance disciplined and relaxed, nailing his own distinctive take on a familiar role. Less gruff than some Oscars past, he is belligerent, bad-tempered, uncouth and unapologetic but, crucially, never unsympathetic. We can see why this guy would be someone’s “dearest, closest friend,” even with all his rough edges. It’s hard to say the same of Broderick’s Felix.
In the absence of greater equilibrium between the two characters, the steady amplification of Oscar’s rage and resentment toward Felix, despite his affection for him, becomes the engine that drives the play as it pushes Oscar to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Unlike such later Simon plays as “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues,” the autobiographical nature of which ushered in emotional undercurrents, it takes actors willing to dig beneath the surface to find something poignant and real under the snappy dialogue of a comedy like “The Odd Couple.” In this sluggish production of a play past its prime, as in so many troubled marriages, one half of the couple is doing all the work.