Jack Klugman & Paul Dooley Are
Also see Bob's review of Death of a Salesman
Sometimes it's more than alright to play it safe. Neil Simon's best, all-out, laugh-a-line comedy The Sunshine Boys is enjoying (isn't it we who are enjoying?) a revival at the George Street Playhouse. And in a casting coup, Jack Klugman is recreating the role of Willie Clark that he recreated in the 1997 Broadway revival opposite Tony Randall's Al Lewis. This time, Klugman is playing opposite Paul Dooley, who understudied Art Carney in the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple while creating the role of Speed over 40 years ago. What could go wrong? Kidding aside, of course, many things could. Fortunately, thanks to the able and inventive direction of David Saint, nothing has gone wrong, All we have to do is get ourselves over to New Brunswick for a helluva good time.
Return with me now to that thrilling year of 1973. The great comic vaudeville team of Willie Clark (Jack Klugman) and Al Lewis (Paul Dooley) have not worked together in 11 years, nor talked to each other in 12. It was then that Lewis retired from the stage, leaving Clark angry and without an act. Clark is now living out his years at the Ansonia Hotel in a motley one room "suite." Every Wednesday, his nephew Ben Silverman visits and brings with him some food, cigars and a copy of Variety. Ben is a talent agent and represents his now virtually employable uncle. The cantankerous Willie has nobody else to harass, so he dispenses his zingers to Ben. When Ben can take it no longer, he tells Willie that he only gets chest pains on Wednesdays. Willie responds, "Then come on Tuesdays."
On this particular Wednesday, Ben does have a job for Willie. It seems that CBS is putting on a variety show featuring a cavalcade of entertainers through the years, and they want The Sunshine Boys, Lewis and Clark, to recreate their famous "Doctor" sketch. Al Lewis, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey, has already agreed. So it is arranged that Lewis will come to Clark's hotel room to rehearse with him.
A particularly brilliant contrast between the two is in terms of their approach to performing comedy. Lewis has a relaxed style and finds pleasure in performing routines. On the other hand, Clark becomes tightly coiled as he strives for precision. This leads Lewis to chide Clark, "In 43 years, you never enjoyed our routines," And Clark to respond, "If I was there to enjoy it, I would have bought a ticket."
What makes The Sunshine Boys special is that all of the humor arises from character. No joke appears to be thrown in just for its own sake. Whereas Clark is apoplectic and hostile from the get go, the quieter and more outwardly reasonable Lewis knows exactly how to get under the skin of Clark and set him off. Furthermore, this by play is a kind of tonic for the two who, beneath all the rancor, fit one another hand in glove. Before the final curtain, we know that Lewis and Clark are destined to live out their lives happily, even affectionately, skewering one another.
The fact that Jack Klugman is eighty-five years old and Paul Dooley is seventy-nine adds to the believability and pathos of their portrayals. Klugman performs with a verve and fire that belie his years. As a result of his laryngectomy, now and then, you may miss hearing a word or two. Of greater consequence is the fact that Klugman's comic timing is superb as he plows forward with undiminished brio and confidence. Dooley is slyly mischievous as he employs a cat that ate the canary expression. Michael Mastro is excellent as Ben Silverman, especially so when it comes time for Ben to display the depth of his affection for his Uncle Willie. Paul Stolarsky and Peggy Joyce Crosby are bang on as, respectively, the vaudeville patient and curvaceous nurse. Ebony Jo-Ann is feisty and amusing as Willie's no-nonsense nurse. Jo-Ann makes it clear before her stint is over that this nurse has her own ideas as to what is humorous.
R. Michael Miller has designed a large, nicely detailed set for the seedy hotel residence on a revolve which when turned reveals the TV studio set for the "Doctor" sketch by R. Michael Miller. Credit Esther Arroyo for the witty costumes.
With this lively, especially well cast production of The Sunshine Boys, the George Street Playhouse has gotten its season started in a high quality, crowd pleasing fashion.
The Sunshine Boys continues performances (Tues.-Fri. 8 PM/ Sat. 2 & 8 PM/ Sun. 2 & 7 PM/ Thurs. Mats 10/25 & 11/8 – 2 PM/ No Mat, 10/27/ No Eve. 11/11) through November 11, 207 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon; directed by David Saint