Review: “The Sunshine Boys”

A few weeks ago I called my girlfriend and said, “I am about to say words that you never thought would come out of my mouth.” Perhaps she was expecting a sentence with the word “marry” in it, but instead I said, “Do you want to see a play when you’re in town?” I am not a theater guy. I just cannot suspend my belief; I cannot figure out why these people are right in front of me speaking these strange words, or worse, singing them. But this was not just any play. This was “The Sunshine Boys.”

“The Sunshine Boys” has always been kind of special to me. It is one of my favorite movies featuring my all-time favorite actor, Walter Matthau, in one of his greatest comedic roles. In the mid-1990s, there was a revival on Broadway starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, the stars of my all-time favorite TV show, “The Odd Couple.” (I guess I have a thing for Neil Simon!). When I saw an ad that the play was running at the Ahmanson Theatre (now through November 3) featuring Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch, the stars of another favorite old sitcom, “Taxi,” I knew I had to see it. My stunned girlfriend said yes. We’ll see what she says to future proposals.

the sunshine boys

So off to the Ahmanson we went. Incidentally, I had never been there before, and they have a pretty unique system for getting in and out. If you park under the theater ($9, not bad), you take escalators that leave you right outside the theater. The procedure is reversed afterwards. It is an efficient system but also typical of Los Angeles — you go right from your car to the theater, never having to brave those mean streets around the Music Center.

Now to the play itself. DeVito stars as Willy Clark, an old vaudeville performer who refuses to retire. He lives in the once ritzy apartment in New York where he has lived for decades, except over the years it has been cut up into five smaller, shabby units. When his agent/nephew, played by Justin Bartha, the missing groom from “The Hangover” movies, finally gets him a job on a TV comedy retrospective, it is with the condition that he performs with his old partner, Hirsch’s Al Lewis. Willy refuses, having never forgiven Al for retiring and breaking up the act a decade earlier. Finally he relents, and the rest of the play is filled with their bickering as they rehearse their ancient act.

DeVito uses his usual cranky persona to bring Willy to life. During intermission, my girlfriend said, “He’s good, but you know you are watching Danny DeVito.” Well said, my girlfriend. His performance works, but if you do not like DeVito in general, you likely will not like him in this role. However, if you do (and I do), you will find it enjoyable.

I wish the same could be said for Judd Hirsch’s performance. At times he seemed uncomfortable delivering his lines; rushing them, making them seem forced. Perhaps it was because Hirsch was a last-minute casting decision; Richard Griffiths, who starred alongside DeVito in London, passed away unexpectedly in March.

Another problem, which was not his fault, was the physical dynamic between DeVito and Hirsch. Willy is the dominant character, and in the movie, Matthau towered over Burns, and you could almost feel the threat from the larger man. Hirsch is a foot taller than DeVito, so that threat was just not there. Also, the role calls for a feeble old man, which Burns was able to pull off perfectly. Hirsch just does not look feeble.

Bartha was fine, however he played the role exactly how Richard Benjamin played it in the film, with the same whiny inflection. It would have been nice for Bartha to interpret it on his own instead if doing a pale imitation of Benjamin’s fine performance.

The production does not try to hide the fact that the play was written back in 1972; no attempt was made to update the sometimes dated language. Now, I am not a politically correct person by any means, but there were a couple of lines that would now be considered a bit racist, and I could actually feel the audience getting uncomfortable. It seemed to break the spell for the moment. I think those few lines could be changed without damaging the integrity of the play.

Overall, “The Sunshine Boys” provided a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theater. I can’t wait for the next one a dozen years from now.