A Couple of Swells

Special Features   A Couple of Swells The concern of Lane & Broderick is back in business on Broadway as the hilariously mismatched buddies in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

Matthew Broderick (top) and Nathan Lane as The Odd Couple.
Matthew Broderick (top) and Nathan Lane as The Odd Couple. Photo by Chris Callas

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The Producers is a hard act to follow, but Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have done pretty well for themselves. Indeed, "pretty well" undercuts the case considerably: When their revival of The Odd Couple (now in previews) bows Oct. 27 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, it will have amassed the biggest advance of any play in Broadway history — something like $20 million, and building! It was, in short, a good idea.

And what high-octane talent management dreamed up this not-at-all-Odd Coupling? Why, "The Boys" themselves. And, to hear Lane tell it, it was just a joke — a throwaway.

"We mentioned it one day to Manny Azenberg at the [Edison] Cafe, Matthew and I, when somebody said, 'What else can you do together?' It just popped into my head, and we both thought it'd be fun." Azenberg, who has produced 22 Neil Simon plays, reportedly lit up like a Christmas tree. "He told us, 'Well, anytime you want to do it, let me know.'"

The author was quick to encourage that thought in a letter. "Neil wrote me and said, 'I want you to play it. I've been holding on to the rights a long time. There've been offers, but I'd like for you to do it.' So I called him and said, 'Absolutely. Let's do that.'" In broad-stroked generalities, a case could be made that Oscar Madison (Lane) and Felix Ungar (Broderick) are Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom with different zip codes and no songs. They hail from the same comedy-genius gene pool that wrote "Your Show of Shows" (to name Names: Neil Simon and Mel Brooks), and both shows revolve crazily around a kind of marriage, requiring some close-order comic chemistry from the actors paired in this chaotic union.

Hence, it's another opportunity for Lane and Broderick to demonstrate the seamless teamwork they displayed as The Producers (Lane earned a Tony for his Max-to-the-max, but he called the also-nominated Broderick to the podium to accept that award with him.)

Their simpatico chemistry, which will also hit movie screens when the film version of The Producers opens on Dec. 21, was slow to percolate. In fact, their first time out as co-stars, the two didn't even work together — and, if they had, they would have been operating at radically different speeds, lending their voices to Disney's blockbuster 1994 movie, "The Lion King" (Lane as Timon, the motor-mouthed meerkat, and Broderick as the earnest, laconic adult Simba). "We didn't meet until the movie premiere," Lane recalls.

When they met again, it was in rehearsal for The Producers, and Lane remembers they were in sync right from the start. A friendship developed, and the fun was palpable to audiences. "We enjoy each other very much, onstage and off," Lane allows, adding that they were not above little can-you-crack-me-up-onstage contests. "Matthew would occasionally mumble something to me under his breath that I might find amusing — and usually did." For instance, Lane recalls a riff Broderick went into because they were playing the same theatre where Oklahoma! had resided. He pretended the ghosts of that show were infecting his performance, and "every once in a while, he'd give one of his lines a rural inflection. Only I would realize what he was doing, and it would break me up every time. We slipped each other things like that."

Forty years ago when The Odd Couple bowed on Broadway with Walter Matthau as the slobby Oscar and Art Carney as the fastidious Felix — born-again bachelors reprising the mistakes of their respective marriages as Riverside Drive roomies — Lane was nine and Broderick was two, but don't expect any rewrites to bring Simon's classic antic up to New Millennium speed. "We did not want to do some sort of updated version of it, with cell phones and things," Lane insists. "It's a straight revival of the original play, and that hasn't really been done on Broadway since '65. I mean, they did a female version of it, and Tony Randall and Jack Klugman did a one-night benefit performance of it. But the play itself hasn't been back to Broadway."

Lane is shooting for a word-perfect reprise. "There's a musicality to Neil's lines. If you leave out a word, it hurts the show. You wouldn't want to change it or add something because that would affect the rhythm. I've been reading this play since I was 12. I joined a play-of-the-month-club with Fireside Theatre as a kid, and the first play they sent me was The Odd Couple. I'm a huge fan."

Which sounds pretty precise and persnickety for someone who's supposed to be "the sloppy one." Coming from Oscar, it's a symphony of sensitivity — but it must be music to Simon's ears.