EmptyOdyssey Theatre, Los Angeles
Through June 1
Compared to his flamboyant cinematic adaptation, Neil Simon's original "The Sunshine Boys" is a chamber music piece. The textures are simpler and the emotions more subdued. But the results, as explored in the Odyssey Theatre's new production, are more real and moving.
When Hal Linden's Willie Clark says to Allan Miller's Al Lewis at the end, "You're a funny man, Al," it's not only the most genuine tribute he can make to his old friend and partner, but it's also the only way he knows to express emotion.
Although "Sunshine" might be a small play, the three central characters in it are big. Estranged comedians Clark and Lewis are, aside from their professional shtick and patter, serious and sad creations. Not only are they entertainment dinosaurs, but each is faced with the reality of a modern world in which families no longer have room for the older generations in their hearts or homes. The optimistic happy ending, more a dream than a certainty, paints a rosy glow about their reuniting at a home for old actors. But it can't erase the real sadness of their lives, that they have outlived their usefulness not only as entertainers but also as members of society.
Miller's interpretation of Al is a revelation, giving him real humanity by combining a quiet sense of dignity and acceptance of fate with a comedian's dry wit. When he and Linden run through their legendary doctor's office sketch, they switch into a mode of operation that shows how their different personalities were able to co-exist professionally until the pressure of growing old destroyed their ability to work together.
Eddie Kehler creates a stunning comic character out of Willie's harried nephew, Ben Silverman, torn between genuine caring and hysterical -- and hysterically funny -- exasperation. Kehler has the look of a weasel and moves around the stage with energy and surprising grace, suggesting what Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo would have been like as a successful New York agent.
As the only character in the play with literally no self-knowledge (unlike his stage persona), Linden expresses with endearing bluster his fury at being unceremoniously "retired" by his partner 11 years earlier. Linden also struggles eloquently against Willie's inevitable mortality. It is a powerful, insightful performance, and his smiles at the end are, as they are meant to be, only partly convincing.
Director Jeffrey Hayden has assembled an excellent cast, made sure that they are given a substantial amount of freedom and adjusted the general pace and timing to keep the action moving without any seeming haste. As a result, the laughs are effective and the emotional underpinnings unobtrusive. Hayden's assured framework showcases Jackee Harry in a brilliant tour de force as Willie's nurse and Alison Lees-Taylor in a dazzling re-creation of what it once meant to be sexy.
Those who remember the Borscht Belt comedians, to whom Simon pays tribute in "Sunshine," will have their hearts warmed as they cry tears of laughter. Those who only know the film have a delightful night at the theater awaiting them.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Jeffrey Hayden
Producer: Ron Sossi
Set designer: Charles Erven
Costume designer: Deb Millison
Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman
Production stage manager: Amy J. Embry
Graphic designer: Dane Martens
Willie Clark: Hal Linden
Al Lewis: Allan Miller
Ben Silverman: Eddie Kehler
Registered Nurse: Jackee Harry
Sketch Nurse: Alison Lees-Taylor
TV Director: Timothy Halpin
Eddie: James Rejent
Announcer: Al Bernstein