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If someone chose to burlesque the institutional theater of Los Angeles with a view to mocking its parochialism (and who could conceivably want to do that?), they’d might concoct a revival of The Sunshine Boys, starring, say, the reunited team of Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch, “together again for the first time” since the hit series Taxi. But it turns out the laugh’s on us, since this sly-footed reprise of the 1972 Neil Simon comedy about a retired vaudeville comedy team still thrashing out old grudges and resentments is anything but toothless, providing some genuine bite and letting deft actors gnarl heartily on roles which remain timeless in their loving specificity.
It’s been more than 40 years since The Sunshine Boys first graced Broadway (with the still unimprovable Jack Albertson and Sam Levene), nearly as long in the tooth as the Smith and Dale sketch “Dr. Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient” was when this show was new. Simon fashioned a new, improved update on the routine for his fictional team of Lewis & Clark (Hirsch & DeVito), and his knowledgeable ear for what was then vintage and is now antique humor allows him to bring these anachronistic stylings into a then-contemporary comic setting without compromising the integrity of their original zingy ballsiness.
The trick to mounting The Sunshine Boys in this day and age is likewise to remain true to its own period flavor, taking care not to update it past its grounding in 1972. Willie Clark’s upper Broadway apartment conveys that sense of cramped space (even on the wide, large Ahmanson stage), with the light coming through the grime of windows that haven’t been cleaned in decades. Even more essential, every impulse to camp up, or referentially comment upon, the proceedings must be rigorously avoided. Unlike Mad Men, this cannot survive either nostalgia or the scrutiny of the lens of current attitudes. Neil Simon may not be Noel Coward or Bernard Shaw, yet to be done well he must be accorded the same respect to be entirely himself.
And this requisite attentiveness to taste and tone is thankfully achieved. Director Thea Sharrock had previously mounted the piece in London with DeVito and the late Richard Griffiths, who had been scheduled to play Al Lewis here before his death. The replacement casting of Hirsch, then, was in all fairness more fortuitous than calculated. DeVito unleashes a dynamo of umbrage and spite, finding his individual take on Willie while resolutely serving the character who cannot, for even one moment, stop distancing himself from everyone in his life by twisting each effort to communicate as a vehicle into a reflexively derisive joke. Hirsch, by contrast, takes refuge in a halting introversion, equally alienated from others, probably as annoying as Willie finds him, and capable of explosions of concentrated anger dredged up from memories that he has chosen to consider past, where Willie sustains himself by keeping each grievance fresh as breathing.
Justin Bartha (the Hangover series, The New Normal) does uncommonly well by the thankless, and therefore more difficult, part of Willie’s caretaking nephew, while Johnnie Fiori (another alum of the London cast) takes delicious care of the acerbic nurse role and Annie Abrams embodies a raucously pitch-perfect exhumation of that thankfully extinct relic, the stage prop sexpot nurse in “The Doctor Will See You Now” rehearsal (though one might quibble with her platform high heels, which seem more jarringly 2013 than either 1972 – or 1922, for that matter – though they do lend more than the requisite lift).
Above all, though, the revelation of this production is how sturdy and observant Neil Simon’s perspective on human behavior remains. The bickering embedded in the sense memory of these two old troupers may be grounded in a professional partnership in which both can anticipate, read and react to one another’s thoughts and words before they happen, but it also requires a compatibility so sensitive that it ensures they can intuitively push one another’s buttons in an implacable commitment to punishing the other for the transgression of intimacy. If that sounds like perhaps many or nearly every long-married couple, or even long-unmarried one, then maybe all of Neil Simon’s patented one-liners contain some inescapable profundity that makes such a revival welcome as much for its illumination as its jokes.
Venue: Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (runs through Nov. 3)
Cast: Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Justin Bartha, Annie Abrams, Johnnie Fiori, Gibby Brand, Matthew Bohrer, Frank Kopyc
Director: Thea Sharrock
Playwright: Neil Simon
Set & costume designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Adrian Johnston
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
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