By Gordon Meyer
Back in the late 1970s, I co-produced a tribute to playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon for the USC School of Cinematic Arts at one of the most prolific periods in Simon’s career on Broadway and Hollywood. His movie “The Sunshine Boys” came out to deservedly rave reviews just a few years before this event, so needless to say, that movie figured prominently in our tribute.
It was a contemporary piece at the time, depicting a pair of aging vaudevillians, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, given one last opportunity for a national spotlight in the form of a featured sequence on a CBS network TV special on the history of comedy where they would recreate one of their most famous skits. The only problem was, Lewis and Clark hadn’t spoken in over 10 years and hated each other. Jack Benny was originally signed to play Al Lewis, but had to back out due to health issues. He encouraged his best friend George Burns to take on the role that would ultimately earn him an Oscar and revive his career. Even though technically he was a good 20 years too young for the part, Walter Matthau played Willie Clark as if the role were tailor made for him.
It’s 40 years later and a revival of the play that premiered in London’s West End last year to rave reviews is now at the Ahmanson for a brief run starring Danny DeVito as Willie and his former “Taxi” co-star Judd Hirsch as Al. If you can set aside memories of the movie, you’re in for an exceptionally entertaining evening of theatre. I say this because the movie itself is so memorable both in the way Simon adapted his own play to the screen and opened up the action and the iconic performances of Matthau and Burns. But plays and movies are very different animals and have to be judged on their own merits.
Even though Simon himself updated the story for a mediocre television version starring Woody Allen and Peter Falk in 1995, director Thea Sharrock, who also directed the 2012 London revival with DeVito, wisely keeps the play set in its original 1972 time period and context. That’s important because to me, playing vintage vaudeville against the era of baby boomer television forms an important historical context for the drama and laughs. Here was a team who had performed together for over 40 years. They had come up in vaudeville and even successfully worked in the early days of television and its plethora of variety shows. But in 1972, times and public tastes were dramatically changing and the comedy of Lewis and Clark was from a bygone era. It was something that Willie Clark couldn’t accept even though his partner Al Lewis saw the writing on the wall a decade before.
This is the first time I’ve seen the play, so my point of reference is the 1975 movie, which is a genuine classic. Needless to say, it’s a challenge to watch other actors in these roles without mentally comparing them to Matthau and Burns. But DeVito, who starred in the recent London revival, makes the role of Willie Clark his own. He’s cantankerous, manipulative, forgetful and ultimately charming. There’s also an interesting physical contrast between DeVito and Hirsch because of the vast difference in their heights, but Sharrock didn’t take advantage of that.
While Hirsch was good as Al Lewis, he frankly was not the strong counterpoint to Willie Clark that Simon’s story calls for, though the chemistry between him and DeVito is undeniable. I just didn’t completely buy him as a former comedy star the way I bought DeVito’s performance. Admittedly, my point of reference was George Burns’ Oscar winning performance, which was so nuanced. But there’s a scene in the first act when Lewis and Clark rearrange the furniture in Clark’s apartment to simulate the set for the sketch they’re going to do on TV where the interaction and timing between the two actors is exquisite.
Justin Bartha, as Ben, Willie Clark’s nephew and agent, has the challenging job of playing straight man and referee to the pair. Bartha pulls off this balancing act quite well, with humor, compassion and more than a little frustration and impatience. While it’s not a showy role, it’s a critical one that Bartha handles with a solid sense of humanity.
Unlike the movie, the play has only two locations – Willie Clark’s apartment and the TV studio where they run through their sketch. Sharrock makes the most of those locales, using the space effectively to help her cast tell the story. While much of the business on stage was carefully scripted by Simon, especially the aforementioned scene where Lewis and Clark move furniture around, Sharrock’s staging and timing of those bits of business are spot on. Another of the joys of the play is seeing an expanded version of the classic “Doctor sketch” that Lewis and Clark were so famous for. Simon lovingly recreates vintage and mildly risqué vaudevillian comedy for this scene which was considerably truncated in the movie.
All in all, this production of “The Sunshine Boys” is wonderfully entertaining. It’s a real treat to see this on stage reunion of “Taxi” co-stars in a play that retains its humanity and humor in a timeless manner.
As an aside, I ran into Neil Simon in the lobby on opening night. He was genuinely excited about seeing this production and the sold out crowd. While I did not have the opportunity to speak with him after the performance, I can’t help but think he was pleased with the way his play holds up and how audiences in 2013 laugh just as much as they did 40 years earlier.
“The Sunshine Boys” is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through November 3. For more information and to order tickets, go to http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/The-Sunshine-Boys/
Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com. Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).