The title of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” refers to two former vaudevillians who worked together for 43 years, but in this Falcon Theater production, there’s nothing resembling sunshine in their personalities, their act or their relationship with each other. Under Curt Wollan’s direction, the show has a dark, harrowing authenticity that turns show business into a nightmare world. Simon’s nonstop witticisms disguise but don’t eliminate the sense of too much tragedy and too little warmth.
The story opens in a rundown New York hotel, home of Willie Clark (Frank Gorshin), an elderly comedian who subsists on reading Variety and dreaming of a comeback, even if it’s only an Alka Seltzer commercial. His agent nephew, Ben (James Van Patten), visits regularly, copes with his tirades and then shocks him with an unexpected opportunity — reuniting with his old partner Al Lewis (Dick Van Patten) for a TV special. After Clark denounces Lewis for his jabbing fingers and tendency to spit at him during routines, he reluctantly consents to the comeback, setting the stage for escalating hatred.
Watching the crusty old timers rehearse and clash on every aspect of their skit, it’s hard to imagine they could have sustained a partnership over four decades. When Lewis resorts to his former habits of poking Clark with his finger and spitting in his face, Clark’s rage causes an onstage heart attack. Logically, this would provoke a permanent split — instead, it evolves into contrived sentiment and reconciliation.
The bond between the two is never felt, and the offbeat combination of Gorshin and Dick Van Patten compounds this difficulty. Gorshin is amusing and powerful in the early scenes, and it’s easy to identify with the despair beneath his irascibility. Gorshin creates a character with uncompromising realism, but remains hammeringly hostile.
Van Patten projects a more gentle, likable persona, so Gorshin’s battering criticism seems to come crashing out of nowhere. Van Patten is a fine actor with impeccable timing, but he lacks the shrewd toughness one would expect from a feisty, battle-scarred old showbiz trouper. The gifted pros keep sparks flying, but in the end — particularly when working on and performing their signature sketch — they seem ill-matched as a lifetime team.
James Van Patten, as Gorshin’s nephew, makes the most of a colorless role. Wheezing under the pressure of his uncle’s exasperating complaints, he nails both the humor and the emotion. Leslie Thomas is refreshingly wry and engaging as the registered nurse who cares for Clark after his heart attack. Lola Lesheim, as Lewis and Clark’s brainlessly sexy, big-breasted assistant, catches the corny, broad burlesque flavor needed in her one big scene.
Rich Hamson’s costumes — especially a loud pink suit — have an ideally overstated quality, and scenic designer Gary Decker’s evocation of a seedy hotel room speaks volumes about the downtrodden circumstances that once popular performers often face in old age.