Two showbiz pros play two showbiz pros and get it right in “The Sunshine Boys ,” the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s 1972 play now starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. The two old friends and TV favorites leave behind, at least to a surprising degree, their familiar “Odd Couple” personae to create another bickering Simon couple, doing away with not only the ghosts of Felix and Oscar but also the specters of George Burns and Walter Matthau, the Sunshine Boys of the popular 1975 movie version.
In John Tillinger’s faithful, straightforward staging, “The Sunshine Boys” recalls the Simon of yore, well-crafted, character-based comedy with a healthy dollop of sentiment and free of weighty message and over-serious ambition. “The Sunshine Boys” is fine, populist fare, modern boulevard comedy with all its pieces in place.
Of course, the play also is a savvy choice for Randall’s struggling National Actors Theater. If the comedy is hardly the classic stuff NAT ballyhooed in its early days, it should pull in some much-needed cash. Randall and, especially, Klugman have audiences on their side from the get-go.
Klugman’s voice, ravaged in recent years by throat cancer, is a whispery gravel obviously amplified but only initially startling. In fact, the actor, as winning as ever, has learned to put his growl to good effect, a lion’s purr that can be humorous, angry and threatening, sometimes all at once: “You live in the country?” he asks Randall’s character, his gruff contempt turning the question into a scathing, laugh-getting accusation.
Klugman plays Willie Clark, the angry half of the once-famous vaudeville team Lewis & Clark, aka the Sunshine Boys. Shuffling around his one-room Manhattan hotel apartment in pajamas and ball cap, Willie nurses an 11-year grudge over the retirement forced on him when his comedy partner, Al Lewis (Randall), broke up the act.
Now, at the urging of Willie’s peacemaking nephew-agent, Ben (Matthew Arkin), Lewis and Clark reluctantly agree to reunite for a network TV comedy special (the time is mid-1970s). The barb-filled rehearsals of an old vaudeville routine (firstin Willie’s cluttered apartment, then in a television studio) allow for lots of comic business and score-settling.
Randall plays the aging Al a bit sharper than the movie’s Oscar-winning portrayal, sounding more Jackie Mason than George Burns. He occasionally slips into his finicky Felix mannerisms, but more often than not sustains an understated, deadpan — and effective — approach.
Klugman has the meatier of the two roles (the story is Willie’s), and he makes the most of it, nailing every laugh and crotchety remark. The chemistry between him and Randall is as undeniable as it is enduring — witness their wordless interplay as Randall annoyingly clinks a spoon against a teacup.
Tillinger’s direction conveys the real-life connection between the two actors (their stunned reaction when their aging characters first lay eyes upon each other is both funny and a bit touching), yet avoids, for the most part, any self-conscious winking.
The rest of the cast is fine, with Arkin (whose father, Alan Arkin, directed the original Broadway cast in ’72) very likable in a fairly thankless role and Ebony Jo-Ann good as Willie’s sassy nurse (a forebear of the sassy housekeeper in Simon’s most recent play, “Proposals”). James Noone’s set of Willie’s rumpled , long-lived-in apartment is on target, as are Noel Taylor’s costumes.
And while the play is one of Simon’s funniest, the production belongs to Klugman and Randall. This “Sunshine Boys” might be a vehicle, but it’s a smooth, well-oiled ride.