Neil Simon is to London what Alan Ayckbourn is to Gotham: a profit more recognized at home than abroad. Despite canny casting of Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths as a former long-standing vaudeville duo reuniting for one last gasp, the warm-hearted but strained tone of Thea Sharrock’s revival of “The Sunshine Boys” is unlikely to buck the trend.
The erstwhile Sunshine Boys worked their beloved comedy act for 43 years. But Willie Clark (DeVito) is still smarting about the sudden decision by Al Lewis (Griffiths) to retire without prior consultation. The result is that they have not seen each other in 11 years or, indeed, spoken in 12.
Cranky Willie, now near-permanently holed up in a small, rundown suite in a less than topnotch hotel, still believes he should be working. His agent Ben (Adam Levy) isn’t so sure but is still excited by possibilities he sees when he receives a request for Willie and Al to reunite for a TV show entitled “The Golden Age of Comedy.”
After a bout of hostility, Willie finally concedes that he will meet up with Al but, predictably, the atmosphere at their reunion is testy. Some jockeying for position later, they find a way of working. But, in the more amusing second act when the TV taping rolls around, things don’t go according to plan and the emotional stakes rise for the final scene.
The highlight of the evening is their classic doctor-and-patient routine, which opens with the prelude of Willie’s shtick with a pneumatic, bimbo nurse (Rebecca Blackstone). That’s funny for its cheerfully preposterous old-style sexism but it’s the one-two banter between Willie and Al that effectively pulls off the trick of making their routine feel both welcome and familiar. The production’s problems come from their surrounding interplay.
Helmer Sharrock seems to have spent more time delineating the characters’ differences than on allowing us to see them as the partnership that proved so enduring. Where kvetching DeVito is a mix of bullet-proof wounded pride and bullish exasperation, Griffiths is ruminative and closed. Although alike in shape, with DeVito looking like a smaller version of Griffiths, their individual rhythms simply don’t mesh.
Even in the touching final scene where Willie has lost his power, they seem overly careful and tentative. It’s not so much that they appear out of touch, it’s as if they’ve barely met. This reduces the laugh count and pushes the sentiment of the scene into sentimentality, always a danger with Simon’s scripts.
Minor characters rarely come off well in Simon’s plays, and the nurse who looks after Willie isn’t even given a name. Hers is not a role, it’s a job, so hats off to Johnnie Fiori for giving her buoyant life. If Levy fares less well with Ben, that’s primarily because he’s both Willy’s agent and his nephew, two jobs for the price of one, neither plausible. To keep things flowing, Levy plays his lines straight out to the audience, unlike Griffiths, who stays largely within the scene. The lack of unity in the playing points to a lack of directorial control.
DeVito’s star wattage should help its London run, but the list of U.S. producers indicates the show’s intention to travel. His pairing with Griffith (a Tony winner for “The History Boys”) could swing it along with the 12-week London run that may yet oil the machinery of this currently creaky vehicle.