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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Sunshine Boys
By Jon Magaril
Casting actors with a long venerable history as Neil Simon's vaudevillian duo is a great idea. The '97 Broadway revival successfully re-teamed Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, TV's Odd Couple. The Sunshine Boys bears a strong resemblance to that work. But this time, Simon has found a more persuasive reason for these contrasting types to deal with each other: they've been successful business partners.
The milieu also lends a welcome believability to Simon's trademark set-up-and-punch rhythms and facility with a quip. The plot is constructed as simply and sturdily as a vintage vaudeville skit. Lewis and Clark, who haven't spoken since splitting up twelve years earlier, are reunited by Willie Clark's nephew/agent for a TV salute to comedy.
The show-biz world gives directors leeway to use a pizazzy performance style. But the work's clear-eyed look at growing old invites naturalism. After all, the title is ironic. Simon focuses on the sunset years of two comedians who excelled at a now-dead art form. Accordingly, during scenes in Willie's Upper West Side apartment, Sharrock keeps the tone as real as possible without losing the laughs. She pushes the comedy in the second act sequence on a TV soundstage.
A more incisive approach in either direction might have helped fill the large Ahmanson space with more vitality. As is, the play comes through clearly and enjoyably. But its comic spark is denied the necessary oxygen to be transformed into the kind of blaze the set-up promises.
The lead performances land but lack combustibility. DeVito and Hirsch are great at evoking the years of separation. They do it so well they seem utterly closed off from each other. Hirsch's Al vigorously proves he's built a life that works without Willie. He doesn't even show much of a need to have his ex-partner understand that. As a result, the pair lack discernible chemistry, which puts a damper on things.
DeVito's Willie at least tries to get a rise out of Al and anyone else within shouting distance. He makes for a delightfully mangy lion in the winter of his discontent. His pride keeps him from admitting that his failing memory is making him increasingly unemployable. Instead, he browbeats his agent/nephew Ben (Justin Bartha) to work harder to find him a gig.
DeVito plays it all honestly. Sure, there's schtick involving TV plugs and locked doors. But he performs every bit of business as if vaudeville is so second nature to Willie he may not even be aware that he creates routines at the drop of a hat.
It's refreshing to see DeVito in a different light from his past four decades of performances. His hair is grey here for the first time. But there's another difference which limits the effectiveness of his performance. Whenever the opportunity is ripe to let one of his patented conniption fits rip, DeVito holds back a bit. Perhaps it's to alert us to Willie's weakening health. Or maybe this occurred only because the performed viewed was at the end of an exhausting two show day. Whatever the reason, it strips another gear from the show's comic engine.
In the second act, Annie Abrams as the stacked sketch nurse and Johnnie Fiori as a real RN, make hearty mini-meals of their minor characters. Bartha, who works well off DeVito in the first act, is distractingly broad both in performance and costuming for the second. The most over-the-top element is reserved for Frank Kopyc's voice-over as the TV director heard through monitors on the soundstage. The off-kilter nature of choices like these give the sense that Sharrock isn't a natural fit for the material.
But DeVito is made for this role. He, Hirsch, and Simon are always funny and compelling here. Even when showing signs of age, their work still glows under the spotlight.