The knock against Neil Simon in the early days was that he cared more about his punch lines than his characters. “The Sunshine Boys,” his 1972 play about the rocky reunion of a pair of elderly vaudeville comics, attempts to turn this playwriting vice into a virtue.
Wisecracks come as naturally to these shambling funnymen as drawing breath. And though arthritis has set in, they still relate to the world as if it were the setup for a slapstick routine — locks refuse to open, a TV (unplugged) goes mysteriously on the fritz.
The jokes land with clockwork regularity, but “The Sunshine Boys” is only intermittently successful as a dramatic comedy. The play, in revival at the Ahmanson Theatre, has the dated feel of a vintage sitcom — one that predates even “Taxi,” the series in which the production’s stars, Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch, last performed together.
DeVito won over the critics with his portrayal of Willie Clark in London opposite Richard Griffiths’ Al Lewis in Thea Sharrock’s production. One of Hollywood’s go-to grouches, DeVito snarls and snaps with the ferocity of a furry gremlin who can’t take a step without stubbing his toe.
Like a canny pro from the old comedy circuit, DeVito knows how to get a rise out of an audience, and he scores plenty of laughs, especially when his pint-size body unleashes a hurricane of fury so big it could take down Florida. But there’s something disarmingly tender underneath the wrath. DeVito endows his signature crabbiness with a moonlit wistfulness that turns out to be the saving grace of the production.
Griffiths was scheduled to come to the Ahmanson in the role that won George Burns a supporting actor Oscar in the 1975 film, but he died unexpectedly in March. Hirsch — a less commanding, more hangdog stage presence — was called in as a replacement.
Could this be why Sharrock’s production seems a step slow? Hirsch, a bundle of senior citizen tics and Yiddish-style mannerisms, aims for realism in his portrait of Al Lewis, half of the Lewis and Clark comedy duo that’s being brought out of retirement for a lucrative TV special, if only the men can put aside their mountain of grievances.
Scrupulously believable, Hirsch makes everything real except the comedy. A physicist could no doubt provide us with the equation for this theatrical phenomenon, but in layman’s terms, the gravity of the performance sinks the role’s buoyancy.
The revival belongs to DeVito, who coaxes us into watching scenes that are long past their expiration date. The play, set largely in Willie’s rundown hotel apartment (brought to life with an entrancing sloppiness by scenic and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler), can be broken down into a series of crusty exchanges.
Willie battles his television and front door. Willie antagonizes his put-upon nephew (Justin Bartha), who does double thankless duty as his agent. Willie spars with his equally quarrelsome former comedy partner with whom he hasn’t worked in 11 years and who is as ambivalent as he is about this reunion. Willie exchanges semi-affectionate barbs with a no-nonsense registered nurse (Johnnie Fiori). And so on.
Smack in the middle is the disastrous TV special rehearsal scene for “The Doctor Will See You Now,” the sketch that made the Sunshine Boys, as Lewis and Clark were known in their vaudeville heyday, comedy icons. Simon gives us the flavor of the kind of shtick (mercenary quack, sexy nurse, victimized patient) that made vaudeville legends out of Smith and Dale, the real-life model for his fictitious duo’s comic business.
Curiously, these gags seem less hoary than the sitcom antics preceding them. Simon’s affection for this bygone style of comedy oils the creaky gears of his play, even if Sharrock’s revival doesn’t take full advantage of the madcap potential.
The production does, however, cleverly transmit the idea that, for theatrical veterans like Willie, showbiz and life are one. When Willie makes himself a cup of tea, the jingle from the Lipton TV commercial accompanies his stirring. Objects in his apartments are like props that have been planted by a stage manager to thwart him. And he has a habit of turning whatever anyone says to him into a boisterous Abbott and Costello routine.
Then of course there’s DeVito, who transforms Willie into a lovable sight gag. Dressed in shabby pajamas and sporting dark owl glasses, his hair divided into two white tufts that are like shaggy earmuffs, he has the audience tittering just by watching television, a cartoon shut-in with a hair-trigger temper.
But what was most affecting about his portrayal of Willie was the dawning recognition that his era was over. Hirsch’s autumnal presence in the final scene provides an effective backdrop for this somber acceptance that glinted in DeVito’s eye like an unfallen tear.
‘The Sunshine Boys’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Please call for exceptions.) Ends Nov. 3.
Price: $20-$115 (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Contact: (213) 972-4400 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes