Unlike the bulk of Neil Simon’s work, The Odd Couple is very nearly a play for about two-thirds of its length. It has characters who are, with one exception, close to three-dimensional human existence; it has a believable situation from which understandable conflicts arise; and only a small percentage of its dialogue sounds as if the characters kept a resident gag writer on the premises. Later Simon plays would pursue all of The Odd Couple‘s weaknesses, instead of its strengths, with dismaying success, and they would lack, to boot, the mythic image at its core which is the real secret of this comedy’s strength: two hopelessly incompatible people who are, nonetheless, friends for life and inextricably bound together. Messy, heedless Oscar and fastidious, overcautious Felix are an iconic pair, classic enough in their mismatch to rank with the great comic teams. The only hard part is figuring out how they got to be friends: The bond is far harder to understand than that of, say, Dionysus and Xanthias or Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, and neither of those unlikely couples sat down to play cards with the same four amiable lugs every weekend. Fifteen minutes of Felix’s obsessive-compulsive fussing with clean ashtrays and room deodorizer could permanently destroy any poker party, and it’s hard to imagine his even being willing to sit down in the chaos of debris and dirty laundry that Oscar’s apartment has become after six wifeless months.
Joe Mantello’s heavily anticipated (and already sold out) new production shows both The Odd Couple‘s strengths and its weaknesses. Salted with plot twists that still twist and jokes that still tickle, the comedy wends its way through enough laughs to make a pleasant evening, and Nathan Lane, while giving Oscar dimension and pathos, mines quite a few more. Lee Wilkof and Peter Frechette, unsurprisingly, give him effective help as two of his four cronies. (Wilkof’s slouch as he reluctantly crosses to answer the door is the evening’s best sight gag.) Matthew Broderick, conversely, is almost too perfectly cast as Felix: Playing to the character’s inhibitions, he creates a figure who’s beyond odd—far too weird to be imaginable at this poker party. This tends to loosen the play’s grounding in humanity and pull it toward the more fantastical kind of vaudeville sketch comedy, in which the characters’ distance from reality is underscored. Along with some supporting performances that lack the depth provided by Wilkof and Frechette, the eerie figure that Broderick cuts thins the play’s overall effect, moving it away from its roots in human nature and towards its flickering end in TV sitcom. Art Carney, creating the role in 1965, was of course escaping not only from the two-dimensional world of sitcom but from a loutish role (Norton on The Honeymooners) far closer to Oscar than to Felix; the audience that came in with TV expectations had the extra pleasure of watching him invent a character wholly unlike what they “knew” him to be. It’s Broderick’s ill luck to have played fussy and repressed roles before, but the repertory company that would allow him to break out of his familiar persona and play Oscar instead hasn’t yet been created, and isn’t likely to turn up on Broadway any decade soon.