PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Odd Couple: Mr. Simon Takes His Bow

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Odd Couple: Mr. Simon Takes His Bow
A man of many body parts that all seem to act, Nathan Lane had only to hoist his index finger in the air meaningfully Oct. 27 at the Brooks Atkinson to lower the first-nighters' tumultuous curtain-call applause for The Odd Couple.
Nathan Lane; Neil Simon; Matthew Broderick; Joe Mantello; Brad Garrett; Peter Frechette; Rob Bartlett; Sarah Jessica Parker; Martin Short; Kathleen Turner; Jerry Seinfeld.
Nathan Lane; Neil Simon; Matthew Broderick; Joe Mantello; Brad Garrett; Peter Frechette; Rob Bartlett; Sarah Jessica Parker; Martin Short; Kathleen Turner; Jerry Seinfeld. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The meaning was clear: "Oh, yes, there's somebody here you should meet"—and, with that, he went to the back of John Lee Beatty's rambling Upper West Side apartment set, opened the door and ushered forth a bespectacled gentleman who looked like a Watchtower pamphleteer who'd lost his way.

But, being the world's most popular and produced playwright of all time who was crowning this accomplishment with the biggest advance for a straight play in Broadway history (more than $21 million), Neil Simon found his way to center stage, planted himself squarely between his Oscar Madison (Lane) and his Felix Ungar (Matthew Broderick), kissed their foreheads for jobs well done and took a well-deserved bow.

His first, he reckoned later at the elaborate wind-down after-party at one of the Marriott Marquis' massive ballrooms. "I was thinking about it, and I don't think I've ever done that before," he said. "Maybe once. I don't remember." After almost 40 Broadway outings in the past 50 years, one can't remember everything. (His first Broadway adventure, a collection of sketches that lasted 18 days, was called—prophetically—Catch a Star.)

Essentially, that is what he did this Broadway revival of his first Tony-winning play. He caught two stars—formerly The Producers—who were shopping around for a second coming and decided The Odd Couple was the way to go. "I don't think anybody expected such a success," Simon confessed. "We didn't look at it that way. We were just going to do The Odd Couple. Manny Azenberg put the deal together. We didn't know what we were doing. The first week, the sales were enormous. We said, `How did this happen?'"

The entire run recently sold out, and, if the show goes extra innings, that will be the two stars' call. In any event, the next Broadway Simon on the horizon will open in mid-February: a revival of 1963's Barefoot in the Park, the play he wrote right before The Odd Couple. It stars Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson, Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts. In the wings, Simon sez, he has three new plays ready: Rewrites (a play rewrite of his last autobiography), something called Waiting for Papa and a sequel to The Sunshine Boys.

The 78-year-old author won't likely be coming back for another curtain-call, and he wanted it known that this one wasn't his idea. "I wasn't going to do it, but they came to me and said, 'We need you to do this for us. You're going on stage,' so I did it."

"They," basically, is Lane. The star readily admits that he's the one who pushed the playwright on stage and has no apologies for this. "I said, 'Is he going to come out?' and they said, 'No.' I said, 'He has to. This is his play. Let's do something. I won't make a big speech. I just want him to come out.'" It was important to him that Simon share the glory.

"I just love the whole play," he admitted. "I've loved it since I was a kid. And tonight I get to do it and open it on Broadway 40 years after it opened, and then to have Neil Simon walk in the door and out onto the stage—it was just a dream come true for me."

Joe Mantello, the show's director, can attest to Lane's devotion to the play. "Nathan has wanted to do this play since he was something like 12 years old," he said. "There was one evening, right before previews, when I went to his dressing room to give him notes, and he was sitting at the dressing room table with a dog-eared falling-apart copy of the play he had gotten from Fireside Theatre when he was a kid. His name was written on it. It said Joe Lane. And he was going over it. It was the most moving thing to me because I know that, before he was Nathan Lane, this play had moved somebody named Joe Lane.

"He really came to the rehearsal ready to play it and make it as good as it possibly can be. He gives you a multitude of choices to pick from. He's truly an inspiration to work with."

Like Simon, Mantello will have another play on the Broadway boards before season's end: a revival of Three Days of Rain which is set to arrive in the spring, starring Julia Roberts. It is, confessed the Tony-winning director of Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning Take Me Out, his favorite Greenberg play.

As he did with last season's revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, Mantello kept The Odd Couple in period, as written. Hence, Simon skipped the whole rehearsal process and started seeing the show—religiously—when it went into previews. The director's major obstacle was the audience's familarity with the turf. Unless you are Terrence McNally, who came to the evening a complete virgin, you could have seen The Odd Couple in a variety of states—the Broadway original (with Art Carney and, in his Tony-winning arrival role, Walter Matthau) or the movie version (with Matthau and Jack Lemmon) or the vastly popular television series (with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall). There was even a distaff Broadway version (with Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers). It tells of two born-again bachelors who turn roommates when their marriages crash and burn—slobby Oscar and fussbudget Felix—and, in three short weeks, repeat all their marital mistakes.

Most of their conflicts fall on poker nights when Oscar's Riverside Drive apartment is overrun with card-playing cronies. In this version, they seem to be played by a law-firm: Garrett, Frechette, Bartlett and Wilkof (as in Brad, Peter, Rob and Lee). The Emmy-winning Brad Garrett and the Tony nominated Peter Frechette stand by for the two stars, and Rob Bartlett could be warming up in the bullpen as an alternate Oscar. The pad begins as a pigsty and blossoms under Felix's fastidious touch into a House Beautiful.

The after-party space at the Marriott adapted to the culinary demands of Oscar & Co. A food court of sorts was sprinkled around the vast ballroom, featuring Chinese here, deli there, sandwiches of assorted pedigree. The centerpiece for each dining table consisted of a football helmet stuffed with non-nutricious nick-nacks, baseballs and the New York Daily News sports section. One industrious seven-year-old got a baseball autograph from Lane.

The last and most glamorous arrival at the party was made by The Brodericks, he in a tux and she (Sarah Jessica Parker) in a low-cut, clean-lined Peter Soronen gown. You'd not guess from the glam she gave out, but she has been doing 14- and 15-hour days filming the movie version of Rebecca Gilman's racially charged play, Spinning Into Butter, for the film-debuting director, Mark Brokaw, and this was no exception. But she warmed to the role of Backstage Wife, while her husband posed with Lane for the papparazzi. "Matthew is amazing," she trilled. "It's a great American play, and they did a beautiful job tonight."

The two stars, butting heads for their comedy sparks, still have the stage computability that exhibited in The Producers. There's no foil like an old foil, evidently. The fast-and-furious Lane blazes with and italic timing, but Broderick has the really heavy-lifting to do—making his neatnik nebbish hold his own against Lane's tidal rage.

"It's the hardest thing that I've ever done," he is quick to confess. "It's very complicated—a big, long play. To go from suicide to joy, that's a lot to do, y'know."

Lane teases that he and Broderick are putting together a TV special so they can come at the public in three different mediums. The movie version of their Tony-winning smash, The Producers, is about to pounce, nicely synched to their current stage success. Susan Stroman, who directed them in both versions of The Producers, is in the film's homestretch. "I've got about two more weeks of tweaking and polishing on my final mix, and I hand it over on Nov. 14. Then it opens in New York on Dec. 15, and then nationwide on Christmas Day so it'll be a lovely Christmas comedy for everyone to see.

"Nathan and Matthew's performances are extraordinary in the movie, and they were wonderful tonight. You know, I spent all day staring at their faces in the editing room. I left it to be here tonight, and here they are again. I feel I know every detail about them."

Rumor has it that Stroman is switching mediums because she has won every award the theatre can offer. It certainly seems that way lately. On Oct. 10, she won The Elan Award from dancers and choreographers in New York, and next week she is honored by Primary Stages. In between, this weekend, she heads for the University of Delaware where she will get a doctorate. "After that," she sniffs mockingly, "you can call me Dr. Stroman."

Talk about a trial by your peers. The opening night of The Odd Couple was viewed by Martin Short (who got a Tony for Simon's Little Me), Jerry Seinfeld in glasses with wife Jessica, Kathy Lee Gifford going glamorous in a coat of schoolbus yellow, Regis Philbin and Joy, Emmy winner Doris Roberts (who did Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers), Harry Evans and Tina Brown, columnists Cindy Adams (who stayed for both acts) and Lloyd Grove, "Access Hollywood"'s Pat O'Brien, Tony Danza, Brent Barrett and Gwendolyn Pigeon 40 years later: Carole Shelley.
Shelly is one of four original cast members still alive, and she is one of two original cast members still alive from Absurd Person Singular which is being revived across the street from The Odd Couple. The heads of all three major theatre chains were in attendance: Jujamcyn's Rocco Landesman, both Nederlanders (Senior and Junior) and The Shuberts' Gerald Schoenfeld. And during the arrivals a Nederlander veep, Nick Scandalios, broke ranks and photographed the arrival of The Shuberts' Phil Smith and his pretty blonde Brit wife, Trish Walsh Smith ("Tony Randall always said I was a Pigeon sister," she purred).
The Shuberts played The Odd Couple the first time around ("at the Plymouth—pardon me, the Schoenfeld," self-corrected Schoenfeld). This time it was the Nederlanders' turn, and Scandalios spent the better part of opening night smiling excessively, for some not-so-mysterious reason. "For once," he said, "I'm not at all worried about what the critics will write tomorrow. Knock yourself out, guys, right?" He smiled for miles.

Neil Simon (center) takes in the audience's applause during the opening night curtain call for <i>The Odd Couple</i>.
Neil Simon (center) takes in the audience's applause during the opening night curtain call for The Odd Couple. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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