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Broadway's show of the year

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THE ODD COUPLEThe Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.; (212) 719-4099

STEAL tickets if you can - the chemistry's still there.

Burdened by nearly impossible expectations, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick proved the right couple for Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Wearing the albatrosses around their necks as jauntily as neckties, Broadway's highest-paid double act performed impeccably in roles that bear the burden of theatrical legend.

What with Art Carney and Walter Matthau in the original 1965 stage production; Jack Lemmon and Matthau in the 1968 movie; Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, long on television, then (briefly) on stage - Simon's yin-and-yang pairing of neatnik with slobnik is rich with glory.

When the impossibly prissy Felix Ungar (Broderick) is thrown out by his wife and comes to live with his best buddy, a divorced sportswriter, Oscar Madison (Lane), it's soon apparent that here is a twain that can never meet. It's going to be a bumpy journey - and a hilarious play.

Simon has been called, often disparagingly, the king of the one-liners, but here, as when Oscar describes Felix as a man "who wears a seat-belt at a drive-in movie," they add something to the character and action.

The play's construction is as calculated as architecture. From its smoky beginning at Oscar's apartment to the intervention of the crazy Pigeon sisters living upstairs and on to the climactic poker party, Simon doesn't put a building brick wrong.

Director Joe Mantello (Mike Nichols did the honors back in '65) is attentive to the play's every twist and nuance. He acutely accents the possibilities for visual humor, deftly caught by John Lee Beatty's period-perfect settings and the costumes by Ann Roth.

The casting is superb (at these prices, it should be) and the visuals, delicious.

Broderick and Lane are highly physical performers, and Mantello also wrests humor from the sheer contrast in height between Lane and the towering Brad Garrett (making his Broadway debut, after TV's "I Love Raymond," as Murray the cop) and the avian movements of the chirping Pigeon sisters.

Along with the admirably deliberate Garrett, Oscar's poker buddies include the seasoned and fussy Lee Wilkof; a continuously but nicely harassed Rob Bartlett and a properly distressed Peter Frechette.

As that very British brace of Pigeons, Gwendolyn (Olivia d'Arbo) and Cecily (Jessica Stone) exude a nice blend of scattiness, sexiness and sweetness.

Of course, it's Oscar and Felix audiences have come to see, and they will not be disappointed.

Lane, with his rolypoly body, Gothic-arched eyebrows and gravelly voice that travels the five boroughs, makes a perfect Oscar - explosively short-fused, quietly sentimental, with the manners and body language of a lovable lout.

As in "The Producers," but with a quite different dynamic, Broderick's wimpily hypochondriac and terminally prim Felix makes the perfect foil: a Laurel to Lane's Hardy.

Hardy laurels all round.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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