The laughs, or at least the guffaws, begin with the very title. Sunshine Boys? Really? Well, maybe half a century ago.
Neil Simon’s 1972 wistful comedy is back on stage, this time at the Ahmanson Theatre through Nov. 3. There’s nothing exceptional about that; Simon’s plays are always being revived because despite the passing of years they age remarkably well.
However, Willie Clark (Danny DeVito) hasn’t aged remarkably well at all. He’s an over-the-hill vaudeville actor who clings to the belief that he can still deliver the goods. His nephew – and agent – Ben Silverman (Justin Bartha) tries to find him work in commercials, but Clark can’t even remember the names of the products he’s supposed to be pitching.
These days, disheveled Willie Clark sits in his pajamas in front of the TV and watches cartoons, but for 43 years he’d performed onstage antics with Al Lewis (Judd Hirsch), and like those other one-two punch teams like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello they were so inseparable that one really didn’t fully exist without the other. But then, after an appearance (their fourth) on the Ed Sullivan Show, Al Lewis walked away from it all and became a stockbroker.
That was eleven years earlier (1961?), and Willie Clark has remained resentful of his former partner ever since. He was forced into retirement – and he wasn’t ready for it.
The most effective comedy plays the straight man against the jokester, and for most of the first act it’s Bartha as the nephew who’s the setup guy. There’s a big-money offer from CBS for the long-dormant team to reunite for a TV special. And so the question is, can Willie Clark overcome the hostility he feels?
Ben Silverman arranges a meeting. Again: Sunshine Boys? It’s a grumpy, irascible first encounter, at least on Clark’s part. He’s as cantankerous as they come, whereas Al Lewis seems distant and preoccupied, and more a picture of frayed, faded, fragile elegance. However, in spite of the discords that punctuate – and puncture – their attempts at communications, both men reveal that they’re agreeable to doing the show.
Although “The Sunshine Boys” plays like a television sitcom, beneath the wit and the generated laughter is a serious and even tragic story. Imagine Sondheim’s “Follies” as the bass line beneath the manic craziness of the Marx Brothers.
Can one’s glory days be recaptured? Can we return to the studio and write another hit song or stroll up to the plate and bat another homerun over the centerfield wall? Well, probably not, but most people would like to believe it’s possible.
The extent and effectiveness of the play’s resonance depends, of course, on its actors and their sense of timing, and in the space or spacings of the play. It also depends on the director, and Thea Sharrock has done a commendable job. Although one could pronounce Hirsch a bit slow on the upswing – his deliberateness does contrast with DeVito’s unkempt nervous energy – it’s also a personal interpretation that subtly redefines the role.
We can only guess what such a team as Lewis and Clark was like in their heyday, but when they resurrect their most famous skit it’s pretty rusty – and so the humor is now both in the routine and in the creakiness of getting it right. It’s also a sketch that’s rather dated – highlighted by an impossibly gorgeous but not so bright blonde (shades of Ulla in “The Producers”), played tantalizingly by Annie Abrams. Clark’s leering is not “p.c.” but that only underlines the point that the routine is also past its prime.
Before the filming is complete Willie Clark gets so worked up that he has a seizure or a stroke and down he goes. In the final scene it’s a registered nurse (Johnnie Fiori) who gets to play the “straight man” – in quotes because the nurse is an African-American woman who’s not about to take any sass from her patient.
Al Lewis visits his ailing friend, and there are more laughs, but this time they’re bittersweet in a new way. The play is over 40 years old, but it can still sparkle and entertain, and it still resonates.
The Sunshine Boys is onstage through Nov. 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Added shows at 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Oct. 24 and 31; no 6:30 p.m. performances on Sundays, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3. Tickets, $20 to $115. Call (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.