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On the Scene Week of Dec. 29, 2005
Maybe … Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick?
The two gentile performers go bump in the night - every night - against Jewish Catskill schtick in an odd couple of projects these snow-blown days: Both are starring to SRO - and then some - crowds as the quintessential by-polar opposites in Neil Simon's classic "The Odd Couple," at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.
The theatrical version of "The Squid and the Whale," they are the slob and the slouch in a revival that reminds one and all that New York neuroses are nothing new for those who have splashed in the Jewish gene pool.
And, then, for any Anglophile who fears someone will really defile Shakespeare with a happy-go-lucky "Hamlet," there are the Boys again, reviving their Broadway roles on screen as "The Producers," which opened last weekend, starring amid the gang that couldn't shoot straight if their lavender laughtracks depended on it.
Keep it goy, keep it goy, keep it goy? Not these guys: Broderick and Lane - neither of whom is Jewish although Broderick, raised a Christian, had a Jewish mother - have become a modern-day Smith and Dale in a deal made up of laughs bartered for schtick.
Both have become so identified as Jewish - Lane's mug is as malleable as a mound of chopped chicken liver; who could not love that face, that face, that beautiful face that makes Broderick a candidate for Punim of the Year - that even their mothers may have to check the local mohels to prove otherwise.
Other wise men have come before the 92nd Street Y's crowds and made them laugh in that New York-based, globally renowned organization's parade of prominent artists and performers over the years. (This event, like others, was satellite-fed to a number of Jewish centers throughout the country - including Reading, Pa. - as part of the 92nd Street Y's redoubtable arts program.)
But it took this odd couple of Jewtiles to have the audiences searching for the seltzer from the spritz of ethnic comedy sprayed through the night.
Lane and Broderick broke them up with their verbal brinkmanship, twitting each other as the two good Jewish brothers they aren't. In a way, it's a good thing. Imagine them at a seder, answering "Why is this night different from all other nights?" "Because it's Passover, you schm---!" would be a probable anticipated reply.
"A lot of people assume I'm Jewish. They think I changed [my name] from Rabin," says Jersey City's Lane, 43, who, in reality, was born Joe Lane, but changed it when another actor was registered with the same name.
So why did he become Nathan Lane? After one of his theatrical icons, Nathan Detroit, which Lane played to perfection years later in a revival of "Guys and Dolls."
But what's in a name - and what's in a history of playing Jews? Funny, he does look Jewish: "All the best people are," adds Lane of the prized appellation of being known as an "honorary Jew."
"People always want to talk to me about my Jewishness; it's sweet. I'm glad I can pass."
He deadpans: "It's led to a lot of roles."
It couldn't hurt. Certainly, it hasn't kept the 43-year-old Broderick from breaking out as a star. Way before he bloomed as Bloom, the certifiably nerdy public accountant in "The Producers," he was Eugene Morris Jerome, Simon's Jewish stand-in in two of the writer's triumphant trio of Broadway plays about growing up Jewish: "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues." (Jonathan Silverman took over in "Broadway Bound.")
Bound for Jewishness? In a way, acknowledges Broderick, who grew up knowing about the religion through his mother; his father, James Broderick, was a prominent actor.
And when it comes to having funny Jewish bones … who could escape the humor of Neil Simon? You'd have to be a Harry Houdini to do so. But you didn't have to be Jewish to like Simon's wry sense of humor either. "When I was a kid," recalls Lane, "I joined Fireside Theater," a book-of-the-month club for play-goers.
"The first play they sent me was 'The Odd Couple.' "
Oddest of all was where he chose to sneak his first read of it, in Catholic school, "in geography class, and I laughed [out loud]," loud enough to draw the wrath of "Sister Eva Braun, [who] said, 'What's so funny?' "
How to explain the Jewish accent on comedy? There's no catechism about ethnic cut-ups; it all evolves like a mish-mash of feelings and memories and hurts and pain and joy.
So, when Lane first latched on to Oscar Madison as a main avenue of laughs in his geography class at parochial school, it was clear that nothing would top the topography offered by master comic cartographer Simon.
"It meant what New York and the theater meant," says Lane of his long association with the writer, which includes having taken Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" out on national tour.
And yet, it was from that play - in which Lane portrayed "Your Show of Shows" showman Sid Caesar - that he also gleaned a respect for one of Caesar's seminal writers, Mel Brooks, who, along with Simon and others, helped provoke that "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."
"No human being is more entertaining than Mel Brooks," notes Lane of the man and the magic - and mishugas - behind the Broadway/movie renditions of "The Producers," adapted from Brooks' own original 1968 movie with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel.
Lane likes to zero in on Brooks' passion and playfulness - a mad mix that makes Mel brook fewer societal and artistic restrictions than most in Hollywood.
Who else but Brooks could make fey so funny and accepted, as he does in "The Producers"? Not that there's anything wrong with that; well, actually, anyone else but Brooks trying it might find some obstacles.
"He's one of the smartest," says Lane of this force of nature, the older muse with Lane, in a way, serving as Brook's young Frankenstein of a creation.
The Brooks brothers? Clothe them in madcap comedy. "There's an insanity and an intelligence that mix," relates Lane of what he considers a Brooks blend of Borscht Belt bawdiness and literary leanings that are Jewishly germane.
The same goes for what Simon says. Indeed, Lane learned early on to take a page out of that Jewish writer's play books, too.
"A lot of my sense of humor is based on them," he says of Brooks and Simon. "My God - [how] they influenced me."
Do Lane and Broderick influence each other? After years of playing "Producers" and pals, what explains the chemistry? "The sex … it's so good," retorts the lascivious Lane without missing a beat. "Night after night!"
Keep it gay? Both Lane, who is gay, and Broderick, who is not and finds his "Sex in the City" in the welcoming arms of his wife, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, laugh at the very notion that Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, the misfit roommates they play each night at the Brooks Atkinson, are really nothing more than two Jewish Momma's boys who would come out of the closet if Simon hadn't thrown away the key.
Oscar and Felix having queer eyes for the straight guy?
No way, both laugh, insisting that such a conceit would undermine the play's entire impact, whose themes "about friendship and the pain of divorce touched me," says Lane.
No Doubts Here!
Now there's no doubting the sexuality of the "Producers" - whether it be Leo Bloom blushing at the undulating Ulla (Uma Thurman, on screen), the Swedish red-herring of a secretary they hire; or Max Bialystock (Lane) stocking up on one-nighters (one-nighters? Make that one-hours), with the resiliently lithe residents of Little Old Ladies Land who fund his hoped-for flop of a musical with a Gerotil bump and grind.
Both are red-bloodied boy/ men looking for red ink to save their careers.
And both actors save a special place in their hearts for the city where their camaraderie as shallow and shameless "Producers" first took hold - in a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. Second city? Second to none!
"Being in Chicago … and the people discovering it," says Lane of the magic moment that was razzle-dazzle 'em time in Chicago. "The whole process … in a huge theater where 2,300 people laugh. It was like a drug. I never wanted to leave Chicago."
His kind of town; Broderick's, too: "At the end of Act I, and the first time you hear the theme of 'Springtime for Hitler' … it was very exciting and you realize, 'We're in Mel Brooks' 'The Producers'!"
"I Wanna Be a Producer"? Who wouldn't after the show knocked Broadway on its tuchas and took so many Tonys, Maria was wondering what happened to him.
But does the film have the same reel thrills? "The film is a very faithful adaptation of the show. It's strange at times," says Lane, because "the audience was such a huge part" of the show's sizzle, and for the film, "you had to let [that] go."
Prisoner of love of the stage? "The show has certain demands," stresses Lane. "It demands a size and energy; you can't do the introspective version" and expect people to laugh.
Broderick gets a good laugh out of being part of the Brooks' stream of hits. "I always liked the '2000-Year-Old Man' record," he remembers of the comedy classic of a disc he and his family slipped on to hear Brooks and Jewish genius Carl Reiner make history hysterical.
The Brodericks played it so often, "the record wore out."
One thing Lane and Broderick haven't done together is worn out their welcome. Winter of discontent? Not as long as audiences can hear "Springtime for Hitler" and try to snag tickets to "Odd Couple" before its last poker game is played out come spring.
As Brooks would say, "It's good to be king."
And, apparently, it's not too bad being the princes of Broadway and Hollywood, either.