The new revival of The Odd Couple doesn’t begin—it erupts. As the houselights fade, the big, brassy opening musical riff says, “Okay, you asked for it,” and we certainly have. The curtain goes up to applause born of high expectation. For at the Brooks Atkinson we have been promised the big event, the main attraction, Broadway’s real deal: the Nathan and Matthew show.
This is not what you’d call a daring enterprise. Giving Neil Simon jokes to actors as sharp and popular as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick is as close to surefire as stage comedy gets. But what’s really funny—if not ha-ha funny—is the way the crowd’s enthusiasm mellows by the final curtain. Somewhere in the two hours between raucous opening and sated close, amid all the big laughs, a certain vitality slips away. It wouldn’t be fair to say the show doesn’t live up to the hype. The fascinating discovery is how wrong the hype was in the first place.
The trouble began one day, 40 years ago, when a comic muse hurled a bolt of lightning earthward, and it struck Neil Simon on the head. He dreamed up a story about what happens when Felix Ungar, a newly separated and vaguely suicidal neatnik, moves into the apartment of crude, sloppy divorcé Oscar Madison. The two old friends drive each other crazy, finding endless new ways to act out the pathologies that alienated their wives. As a premise for comedy goes, that’s ingenious—a way to ricochet among the buddy, domestic, and unhappy-marriage genres.
But onstage, a premise it remained. Simon only began to work through the variations of his marvelous theme. “That’s it?” you wonder, as the story draws to its too-abrupt close. Today, the show seems less a classic comedy than a pilot for the TV series, a teaser for the many episodes of comic bickering to come.
To amount to anything more than a series of punch lines, a revival needs to find some emotional depth in Oscar and Felix’s testy friendship—some kernel of intimacy in their ersatz marriage. Joe Mantello’s production seems ably situated to do so. If you’ve forgotten the notices Lane and Broderick received as Bialystock and Bloom in The Producers, the mainstream position was that they were divinely matched as partners, friends, lovers without the sex; never since the ancient Greeks invented the crotch kick had any pair been so funny onstage. (An article in Time recently sang an ode to their “legendary rapport.”) With their sophomore outing, we get a new sense of what the team can—and can’t—do.
The absence you feel most keenly here is the ad-lib. In The Producers, Lane and Broderick famously, wickedly punched up their dialogue night to night. Here, a 40-year-old script keeps them honest—alas. Because without room to maneuver, the imbalance between them shows. Lane may not seem remotely gruff enough to be a boozy gambling sportswriter, but he has talent to make you buy the performance—to relish it, in fact. Each time he appears, storming around in a Mets cap, with his ever-present Scotch, you’re more willing to believe he’s Oscar. His uproarious success is all the more impressive for being a stretch.
Broderick, by contrast, comes off as superficial, with a stiff bearing and relentlessly adenoidal voice. In the world of musical comedy, this might be a match for Lane’s Oscar, but here in something like the real world, the disparity glares. Forget investing in the characters’ friendship, you don’t even understand why Oscar tolerates him. The show needs Felix to be not just funny but deeply human, a quality Broderick doesn’t supply.
Of course, Felix’s brittle boyishness isn’t entirely the actor’s fault. When the giggly Pigeon sisters drop by for dinner, he turns up in a plaid jacket, striped shirt, different striped tie, and clashing red kerchief: a cartoon of nerdishness. Over and over this impulse recurs. Even the bubbly type on the marquee, which would suit a Pixar film, aspires to adolescent cuteness. Not coincidentally, the same complaint dogged The Producers. In moving from screen to stage, Mel Brooks traded the brilliantly freaky Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder for these adorable gents.
Taken together, the two shows—even the surpassingly safe choice of The Odd Couple in the first place—pinpoint what’s wonderful and what’s frustrating about this team. If they return for a third outing, we can trust they’ll be hilarious, and God knows that’s reason enough to hope they do. But from the evidence at hand, we should expect the laughs to be harmless.
At Lincoln Center last year, Lane’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs showed that comedy can do more than entertain. It can engage, provoke, inspire—all qualities absent here, and from Broadway generally, for that matter. Even after the middling Odd Couple, there seems little question that the brilliant Lane and his so-so sidekick will continue to enjoy the blank check of vast popularity; the question is, on what will they choose to spend it?