Ever since "The Odd Couple" (search) — the most hyped Broadway show since, well, "The Producers" — began previews at the Brooks Atkinson three weeks ago, Broadway's been churning with gossip about Matthew Broderick's (search) performance as Felix Ungar:

* He didn't know all his lines until the first preview.

* His performance isn't yet up to the level of his co-star Nathan Lane's. (search)

* The famous chemistry between the two men is missing.

* He's falling back on old Leo Bloom schtick from "The Producers."

* There's tension between him and director Joe Mantello.

Broderick, speaking jointly with Mantello over the phone from his dressing room, yesterday addressed those rumors head on.

"Don't confuse slowness with lack of work," the beloved Tony Award-winning Broadway actor said. "I sometimes take time, but I work extremely hard.

"To defend myself, Nathan is an insanely quick person, and I tend to look like a dimwit, or something, next to him.

"And the idea that I came here wanting to do Leo Bloom in the middle of 'The Odd Couple' is insane to me. We are trying to build a whole new character."

Mantello — who, during the first week of previews, was said to be frustrated with Broderick's sluggish pace — said: "The gig is, when you're the director, you learn to accommodate the actor's process. I've been doing this long enough to learn to be patient, and I am extremely happy with Matthew's progress."

Mantello likened the balancing of Broderick and Lane's performances to the work he did with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth on the smash musical, "Wicked."

"Those two actresses worked at different speeds, and it was my job to accommodate them and honor them and get them to be in the same play at the same time.

"It does make rehearsal complicated because you have two very different timetables. But I think 'Wicked' turned out pretty well."

Broderick chimed in: "So did 'The Producers,' and Nathan and I were the same two people then as we are now."

Broderick and Mantello both acknowledged that it has been difficult pulling "The Odd Couple" together in full view of the New York theater community, which loves to crash early previews and file reviews from the front.

"I wish we were out of town, so we could work on these things quietly," Broderick said.

"Everything takes on huge significance. Doing this in a fishbowl is quite horrible."

"The vultures who come to the first preview are not going to see a show that's in perfect shape," Mantello said. "But we have four weeks of previews, and it's a question of how you make the best use of them. Of course the show has gotten better. I am confident in everybody in the cast, and audiences are loving it."

Asked if he was confident, too, Broderick said: "I never feel confident in anything."

Friends for almost 15 years, both men said rumors of tension between them were overblown.

"Because the show has such a high profile, people want to read too much into what I consider to be normal give and take," Mantello said. "From my heart, this man has been my friend and he will continue to be my friend."

Notorious in Broadway circles for his ferocious temper, Mantello said it has not been triggered on "The Odd Couple," much to the amazement of some of the actors in the cast with whom he has worked in the past.

"There has been no raising of voices," he said.

Joked Broderick: "That will come. And if it's going to happen, it'll be this week."