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A CurtainUp Review

The Sunshine Boys

is about two down-on-their fame vaudevillians whose attempt to get their act together long enough for a one-shot opportunity to be in the limelight is doomed by their oil-and-water personalities. The two grumpy old has-beens seem fated to have their next reunion at the Actors' Retirement Home in New Jersey.
br> Not so Jack Klugman and Tony Randall who play Willie Clark and Al Lewis in the just-opened revival of the comedy at the Lyceum. Klugman who's seventy-five and Tony Randall who's seventy-seven, may be and look as old as their characters, but both remain vibrant contenders whose sun is a long way from setting. Their talents as first-rate actors with the flair and timing to make people laugh their heads off are undiminished. Randall's mellifluous, clear-as-a-bell voice and impeccably timed line delivery can put many a much younger actor to shame. While Klugman's voice reflects his bout with throat cancer, the extent to which he has retooled that voice is remarkable. Both actors are masters of facial expressions and body language. Their performance is perfectly synchoronized, whether they bounce one liners back and forth, watch each other warily and even with their backs to each other..
br> With the National Actors Theater's (of which Tony Randall is the artistic director), not exactly a company with an unbroken history of hits, it's fair to ask if this twenty-five-year-old show holds up as well as its two stars. The answer is yes.
br> The basic premise is simple and it still works: The curtain (an evocative shade imprinted with the names of vaudeville's greatest acts) rises eleven years after the breakup of a legendary vaudeville act known as Lewis and Clark. That's's when Al Lewis (Tony Randall) decided forty-three years was enough. He'd had it with vaudeville (or it with him and Al?) and wanted to try his luck as a stockbroker. In doing so he deprived his partner Willie Clark (Jack Klugman) of the career he still covets. To say Willie was infuriated is a major understatement. He's refused all contact with his former partner. It's only through the persistence of his devoted nephew and hapless agent (Matthew Arkin) that he grudgingly agrees to see Al so they can rehearse one of their famous skits for a television special about the history of comedy. When you consider the very recent TV documentary on Vaudeville the device of the TV show to reunite these two old-timers seems right on the button. The second act reenactment of their famous "Doctor" skit plays like a live segment from that very show.
br> When all is said and done, The Sunshine Boys is vintage laugh-a-minute Neil Simon before his more autobiographical Eugene Jerome trilogy and the Pulitzer Prize winning Lost In Yonkers. As Proposals which we reviewed earlier (See Links below) is the work of an older, more reflective, the protagonists of The Sunshine Boys are older counterparts of Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. The jokes are all there, but so is the touch of sadness underneath the surface. What gives these characters their enduring appeal is that even as they tickle your funny bone they also tug at your heartstrings..
br> Adding to the fun of the production, director John Tillinger has given the two stars a fine production. James Noone's double set is terrific. The main scenes take place in a properly seedy midtown hotel suite shrunk to a single bed-sitter and overhung with bits of Ansonia-like exterior facade. In the second act, this deftly shifts to the bright and amusing rehearsal studio for Lewis and Clark's famous "Doctor" skit. (Noone, like Neil Simon is currently represented in two midtown theaters--see our upcoming review of Cyrano ) Noel Taylor's costumes, especially Tony Randall's outfits, are also great fun, as are the scraps of familiar music and skits from Lewis and Clark's era that sound designer Richard Fitzgerald has produced to introduce each act.
By Neil Simon
Directed by John Tillinger
Starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall With Jack Aaron, Stephen Beach, Peggy Joyce Crosby, Ebony Jo Ann, Martin Rudy and Matthew Arkin.
National Actors Theater. Lyceum, 149 W. 45th St. (239-6200)
Performances began 11/29/97; Opened 12/08
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 12/09/97
Closing June 28 after 12 previews and 230 regular performances.

Related Links and Information About the Sunshine Boys and Neil Simon's Work
The Sunshine Boys is one of two Neil Simon Shows currently running on Broadway. The other show, Proposals was reviewed here when it opened in DC with a Second Thoughts follow-up feature when it came to Broadway.

Having two or more shows on Broadway is more of a homecoming than a new experience for Simon. To learn more about his fabulous triple-barreled career, reread our review of his recently published memoir Rewrites.

According to that memoir Simon and his brother earned their first money as writers after they met Beekman and Pransky, two men who booked most of the big acts into the Catskill Mountain resorts. While writing this stand-up comedy material they also met "the former stars, who were now on their way down, hoping to find renewed life with the fresh new jokes supplied by two young kids." One of these was a former vaudeville great named Willie Howard. "He was a pint-sized man with a huge head of hair who invited them to meet him in his suite at the Astor Hotel on Broadway That suite turned out to be a drab room with bath. He was wearing a faded bathrobe over pajama tops, blue pants with suspenders, argyle socks and slippers." It turned out he didn't want new material but someone to punch up his act and while Simon wasn't able to help him work again, he did bring him back to life fictionally in The Sunshine Boys.

The original production of The Sunshine Boys opened 12/20/72 at the Broadhurst Theatre with Jack Albertson and Sam Levene and Lewis Stadlen as the nephew. It was directed by Actor Alan Arkin and ran 538 performances (with Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi replacing the original stars).

The 1975 film, starring Walther Matthau and George Burns (Richard Benjamin, nephew) is still available as a golden oldie video.

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