Two grumpy old gits with failing memories harbour massive grudges and snipe at each other. One of them prefers to spend as much time as possible lolling around in his jim-jams. Both attempt to flog tired old gags in a double act that’s way past it’s sell by date.
The Sunshine Boys has a most pungent, room-clearing whiff of someone having a laugh at the Whingers’ expense. Would it prove a bit too close to home (a retirement one of course) for them?
Cast opposite him the altogether less diminutive Richard Griffiths as his former stage partner Al Lewis (didn’t he play Grandpa in The Munsters?) and you might believe you’re almost Twins-set for a perfect match.
Lewis and Clark were a successful act nicknamed The Sunshine Boys but they haven’t spoken to each other for for years; they didn’t even speak to each other off-stage during the last year of their act.
CBS invites them to unite for a TV special but can Clark’s nephew Ben (Adam Levy) convince his uncle to put aside his resentments against his former stage partner for them to appear together for one last time?
We’re not giving much away by saying “of course he can” but heavens, Act One is a long old slog getting there.
Now, preview performance and all that and there are no complaints about how much DeVito you get for your buck: his is by far the largest role (Griffiths doesn’t appear until half an hour in). The problem is the play which – like Lewis and Clark’s act – feels terribly dated.
What happened to Neil Simon? Is it us? We used to find him funny but struggled to wring any entertainment value out of his Prisoner of Second Avenue and here that struggle became almost mortal combat. We wanted to laugh, yet barely cracked more than a few smiles before the interval. Andrew struggled with consciousness despite a handful of the audience howling with laughter around him. Phil’s mind wandered off as he admired the realistic condensation effects on the windows of Hildegard Bechtler’s convincingly rundown hotel apartment set and wondered if the over-ripe banana sitting in the fruit bowl was intended as a metaphor.
Act Two is better, but largely because it’s shorter. We get to see them perform their “legendary” doctor sketch with lots of daft medical jokes and letching at a buxom nurse until it all goes terribly wrong which unfortunately is before we get to see the three pounds of liver promised by the shopping list of props recited in Act 1. Apparently three pounds of liver is funnier than two and two even more hilarious than one (in Neil Simon’s mind anyway). Who knew? The business of comedy is a steep learning curve.
Strangely the funniest scene was the one that comes immediately after DeVito and Griffiths perform their schtick. An ailing and bed-ridden Clark spars with his sassy nurse played by Johnnie Fiori and both are superb here: DeVito is at his best but Fiori almost steals the show, getting it spot on as she gives as good as she gets.
On the plus side the play’s resolve is handled deftly and Simon clearly had the good sense not to resort to overt sentimentality. For this we must be grateful.
Hopefully director Thea Sharrock will make cuts to Act One or they’ll pick up the pace before press night, but when Andrew confesses his highlights are seeing Tyne Daly and Rhea Perlman (Carla in Cheers, Mrs DeVito in real life) in the audience you know something must be wrong.