“Sunshine Boys” by Neil Simon is the bittersweet tale of two vaudeville performers, Lewis and Clark, who were comedy partners for years, but become estranged when Lewis suddenly declares that he is retiring, essentially forcing Clark into retirement as well. Fast forward fifteen years and Clark, played by Danny DeVito still harbors the illusion that he is a working actor, despite the fact that he hasn’t worked in years. His nephew, played by Justin Bartha, who visits every week to bring him groceries, announces that CBS is doing a show about the history of comedy, and he wants to book Lewis and Clark. Thus, Clark is forced to decide whether his desire to perform again is greater than his grudge against Lewis, played by Judd Hirsch.
The premise of “Sunshine Boys” has the promise of a multitude of opportunities for comedy, which there are several funny moments. However, watching this play, one can’t help compare it to “The Odd Couple,” and of the two the latter is better. The entire plot hinges around the grudge that Clark holds against Lewis and all of the injustices that he has concocted in his head to justify the worthiness of his 15 year grudge. The problem is that all of the contention seems to be on one side. We see a hesitation on the part of Lewis for the reunion of the act, but once that hurdle is surmounted his only problem seems to be dealing with the contentiousness of Clark. After a while it starts to feel as if Clark is purposefully picking fights and being cantankerous simply for the immature desire to somehow get even with Lewis’ decision to retire. It gets old.
The pacing, which is akin to the movement of molasses in January in Alaska, set by director, Thea Sharrock does not help. While it is fantastic to be able to see acting legends DeVito and Hirsch live on stage, and they have the acting chops to fill a moment and command the stage, the script itself cannot support such a slow pace. Thus, despite the immense talent on stage, this production drags. The pacing at the start of the second act, which is the rehearsal of their doctor sketch, comes closest to what the pacing should be, and as such it is the most engaging part of the play. However, as soon as the rehearsal is over, the crawling progression forward continues. There is also a decided lack of polish throughout the production including dropped lines and several instances of the curtain getting caught on set pieces.
The exception is actor Justin Bartha, as the nephew. Whenever he is onstage there is a sense that he is trying to drive the action forward and to a certain extent he succeeds. However, as he is on stage sporadically, he is much like Atlas in that he has to start his battle from the beginning every time he enters. Annie Abrams as the nurse also does an admirable job of infusing some life into the proceedings. Her acerbic wit counters DeVito’s cynicism beautifully.
There are definitely great moments in the Ahmanson’s “Sunshine Boys.” They are unfortunately too spread out to make this a memorable production.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News