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Lane, Broderick ladle it on

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NEW YORK -- Seldom have I felt as irrelevant as a critic as I do reviewing the new Broadway revival of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (*** out of four).

After all, many people who will be seeing this season's hottest production, which opened Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, have already secured tickets. And given the lengths that some reportedly went to and the prices they paid, I doubt that even the most scathing pan would persuade them to give up their seats.

The good news is that, provided these folks didn't have to mortgage their houses, they'll be getting their money's worth -- as long as they're going for the right reasons.

Those reasons would be Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, whose chemistry in Mel Brooks' The Producers made them one of musical comedy's most dynamic duos. Like that 2001 hit, The Odd Couple offers the veteran stage and screen actors a pair of juicy roles: Lane is cast as Oscar Madison, the divorced sportswriter who lives in slovenly bliss until his good friend Felix Ungar shows up. Broderick plays Felix, who moves in with Oscar after being ditched by his own wife and proceeds to impose his obsessive-compulsive orderliness on the confirmed slob's apartment and life.

Lane plunges into the alternately grouchy and garrulous Oscar with predictable relish, and Broderick makes a sweetly droll fussbudget.

But it's the rapport between them that truly delights. When this Felix begins dusting around his and Oscar's pals in the middle of a poker game, or details a list of bizarre ailments, Oscar's reactions are as amusing as his roommate's antics.

Simon's 1965 play hasn't held up as well over the past 40 years, though, as its new stars have over the past four. It's not that this presentation seems distractingly dated; designer John Lee Beatty's period leisure wear and Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman's jazzy incidental music are endearing.

But The Odd Couple remains a stage comedy with the soul of a sitcom -- and, ironically, not one as smart as the TV series it actually inspired. Oscar's retort, when the subject of his overdue alimony arises, that "Poland could live for a year on what my kids leave over for lunch" is about as clever as the lines get.

Still, director Joe Mantello and the players keep the proceedings breezily entertaining. Rob Bartlett and Brad Garrett are standouts among the poker buddies, and Olivia D'Abo and Jessica Stone giggle charmingly as two eligible British sisters named Gwendolyn and Cecily, just like Oscar Wilde's heroines in The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Odd Couple won't be recalled as admiringly as that classic decades from now. But this version, at least, should elicit many fond memories.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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