DeVito and Hirsch Capture Sunshine at the Ahmanson
The Sunshine Boys/by Neil Simon/directed by Thea Sharrock/Ahmanson/through November 3
Art imitates life; life imitates art. When two vaudeville partners performed together, they antagonized each other and bickered in and out of sketches; now back together after 11 years of space from one another, they antagonize and bicker once again. Unhappy and stubborn, Willie Clark (Danny DeVito) and Al Lewis (Judd Hirsch) reluctantly agree to reunite The Sunshine Boys for a one-night TV special on the history of comedy. Is the decision a big mistake? Now onstage at the Ahmanson Thea Sharrock masterfully directs a masterful revival of Neil Simon's classic play The Sunshine Boys through November 3.
Endearing about The Sunshine Boys, apart from Simon's a.laugh.a.minute dialogue, is his character study of two old curmudgeons. Each wants his own way, but underneath desperately needs the other's friendship. Just like their chemistry onstage where one could not exist without the other...well, that's basically what it is in life too, even though neither is willing to admit it. As the years have progressed Willie Clark is alone except for a caring nephew (Justin Bartha), who has also served as his agent. He lives in a dilapidated New York hotel in the early 70s and goes out for an occasional TV commercial audition but cannot even remember the name of the product like Frito Lay's, let alone his lines, so fails miserably at nailing a job. Al Lewis, on the other hand, has retired and lives in New Jersey in a fashionable country house with his daughter. He enjoyed what he had onstage, at the time that he had it, whereas, according to him, Willie never did. Willie took it too seriously and ruined any opportunities for enjoyment. Regardless of their spats, the two were a celebrated comedy duo. Serious as ever, Willie refuses to forgive Al for retiring, for walking out on the act. He's miserable, so resorts to making a big deal of all of Lewis' s bad habits like jabbing him with his finger and spitting in his face when he pronounces his t's. When the two finally get together to rehearse their famous doctor sketch for the TV special, the minute Lewis spits or points that finger, Willie goes into an uproar. He gets so upset, that on the day of the show, he has a heart attack on the set, ending their chance to revive the sketch for future generations of comedy buffs. The taped sketch from The Ed Sullivan Show 12 years earlier airs in its place. Heart attack: a tragedy or a blessing? It puts Willie in bed for weeks, giving him a chance to reflect on his life and perhaps to change his mind about Lewis, especially when Lewis requests a visit with him.
It's a predictable story, made hilarious fun with the two actors playing Lewis and Clark. In the 1975 film it was the genius of Walter Matthau as Willie and George Burns as Al; here it is DeVito and Hirsch who win our hearts. Old working pals from TV's sitcom Taxi the two know each other's every move, gesture and reaction. What could be more perfect in recreating a vaudeville team? They are approaching the twilight of their careers, and their timing is perfection. Bartha as Ben is sheer joy as he fumbles, falls and picks himself back up again in his attempt to make Uncle Willie in any way cooperative. Fine work also emanates from Annie Abrams as Miss MacKintosh, the tall blonde bombshell actress who plays the nurse in the doctor sketch. She's a hoot! Great also are Johnnie Fiori as the real nurse, Gibby Brand as the comedy patient, and Frank Kopyc and Matthew Bohrer in tiny roles on the TV set. Director Sharrock uses a steady, smooth-flowing hand and must have had a ball with these great pros. Hildegard Bechtler has designed a wonderfully credible set of the old hotel suite and has also accomplished a nice job with costuming.
Even if you are a fan of the movie The Sunshine Boys, you will enjoy this new stage version, mostly due to the fantastic presence of DeVito and Hirsch. From Hirsch, always a dandy actor, a dynamite performance is fully expected, but from DeVito, we anticipate predictable ham. Surprise, surprise! In this, he is Hirsch's equal in some very different, surprisingly solid choices.