The Odd Couple
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 3, 2005
The first and most important thing I have to say about The Odd Couple is something you probably already know: this is a very funny play. The first act, in particular, is a breezy, happy hour of rapid-fire one-liners and well-wrought gags, rooted in familiar and richly human terrain; Neil Simon at his very, very best. If the second half is somewhat less satisfying in this Broadway revival—if the emotional resonance of the relationship between its two main characters is somehow insufficiently realized here by stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and director Joe Mantello—well, that's got a lot to do with how life and fashions have changed in the 40 years since this play was written. It doesn't keep the evening as a whole from being pleasantly entertaining.
The Odd Couple is about, of course, best pals Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Oscar's a slovenly sportswriter, Felix is a buttoned-up neatnik; both have been thrown out of marriages of reasonably longstanding by (unseen) wives, for reasons that will become apparent as the play progresses. Oscar's been divorced for a while, and now occupies an eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive by himself. When Felix is late for the Friday night poker game that he's never missed in years, Oscar and their other buddies—Murray the Cop, Roy the Accountant, Vinnie the Hen-pecked Husband, and Speed the Curmudgeon—all begin to worry; and when Felix's wife Frances calls looking for him, announcing that they've broken up and that Felix said he was going to kill himself, well, everybody gets more than a little panicky.
Felix turns up, of course, right on cue at this very moment, obviously perturbed but putting on as brave a face as someone as hypochondriacal and self-absorbed as he is can under these circumstances. Oscar, fiercely loyal, suggests that Felix move in with him, and a great comic idea—and comedy—is born. As the long-running TV sitcom based on this play succinctly put it: "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"
What's best about this new production is the supporting cast. Brad Garrett (Murray), Peter Frechette (Roy), Lee Wilkof (Vinnie), and especially Rob Bartlett (Speed) fit as comfortably into Neil Simon's smoky poker games as they would into old, worn slippers—they're terrific bouncing the zippy and sarcastic New York patter off one another, anchoring the entire play thematically and stylistically in precisely the same way that all of the miscellaneous reporters anchor Hecht & MacArthur's The Front Page. To watch Garrett's Murray take an inordinate amount of time to deal a hand of poker, or to track the numerous annoyed double takes on Bartlett's expressive puss as he suffers through same, is to experience the essence of classic Simon comedy.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, this show's Oscar and Felix respectively, have plenty of Simon credits among them (especially Broderick, whose creation of Eugene Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs two decades ago helped fuel Simon's rebirth as a major American theatre writer in the 1980s and '90s). So they have a handle on what to do here, and for the most part they deliver the goods. Lane's Oscar is a carefree pussycat whose bark (to mix animal metaphors) is far worse than his bite. Broderick's Felix is a sentimental eccentric who craves order and attention. The duo's chemistry, honed in the hit The Producers, is absolutely genuine: they give off a clear and unassailable sense of being lifelong best friends, as the script demands. Their comic skills and timing are superb, naturally; a particular highlight is the moment when Lane gives Broderick the clumsiest massage you've probably ever seen attempted—a tribute to the generosity and trust these two clearly share for one another's talents.
Unfortunately, what Lane and Broderick never quite do is convince us that they're Oscar and Felix. I thought a lot about why, and tried hard to get past the obvious answer (which is that Lane is not Walter Matthau and Matthew Broderick is not Tony Randall), and what I eventually came up with is that these two actors, talented though they are, just don't have rumpled, careworn, middle-aged married men in them, at least not yet. Some of this has to do with the times we live in: I think we expect a successful journalist with a fancy Upper East Side address and a 12-year-marriage to a non-working wife and two children to be a good deal older than the ever youthful Broderick appears to be. Our contemporary cult of youth adds to the trouble—Matthau, several years younger in 1965 than Lane is now, always seemed middle-aged, didn't he? Whatever the reason, I never really believed that this Felix and Oscar were as intractably set in their ways as they seem to be, and without that, a lot of The Odd Couple's bite dissipates into toothlessness. Lane's kinder, gentler Oscar proves problematic in the explosive climax of the play: the inevitable confrontation between Oscar and Felix fails to ignite, and the resultant resolution has little kick.
Director Joe Mantello is probably also responsible for some of what's lacking here. He never puts his two heroes nose to nose the way they need to be for that big showdown, and it hurts the play; he's also restructured a perfect three-act comedy into an imperfectly balanced two-act piece, compressing Oscar and Felix's disastrous double-date with the English Pigeon sisters and its aftermath into just the second half of the play, eliminating breathing room for Oscar and the audience to take that classic scene in. (I should mention here that Jessica Stone and Olivia d'Abo are competent as the Pigeons, but only that; their characters have the potential to steal the play, at least temporarily, right out from under its stars, but neither manages anything close to that. My attention was riveted on Broderick, deservedly, throughout that segment.)
Ann Roth's costumes and John Lee Beatty's sets reflect the mid-60s period nicely, though one might question Beatty's use of space—the poker/dining room table, where much of the action takes place, is way off stage right, while Oscar's spacious but underutilized living room and entrance foyer occupy the majority of the playing area. I liked Marc Shaiman's nifty background music, a blend of vaguely jazzy, vaguely rock-n-rolly music that conjures the time and place deftly.
Only in its very final moments does Shaiman's score dip into the famous Neal Hefti theme that we associate with the movie and TV series. That's smart, but ultimately I found it impossible to not remember earlier incarnations of The Odd Couple while I was watching this one. Matthau, in particular, seems particularly indelible—his Oscar is as definitive a performance as I can name. And so, the final question begged by this revival has to be this: Why?