Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is a triumph of strategy. (1) It is full of one-liners: easily detachable and portable laughs. (2) The main characters, a retired vaudeville team, now hate each other, hence ever-popular insult comedy. (3) Willie Clark and Al Lewis are also Jewish, so we get audience-tickling Jewish jokes. (4) The background is show business, providing cherished showbiz humor. (5) A play about old croakers will capture Broadway’s senescent regulars. (6) Big Apple-vs.-New Jersey jests draw in the trans-Hudsonians. (7) As ex-vaudevillians, Willie and Al generate nostalgia for a vanished world. Add the stage-screen-and-TV-enshrined duo of Jack Klugman (Willie) and Tony Randall (Al), and it’s platinum-edged securities time.
If after this you expect a royal roasting, I am sorry to disappoint you: The Sunshine Boys in the National Actors Theatre revival is still rattling good fun. Foolproof ingredients are no gourmet guarantee. But chef Simon, in top form, knew the right proportions, the appropriate oven temperature, and correct cooking time. What comes out is, despite the suspect something-for-everyone formula, palatable enough to forgo even the missing sweetener of romance. There is no love interest here, but the old-timers’ mutual love-hate amply makes up for it.
Willie, in whose dingy upper-Broadway hotel apartment most of the action is laid, has a precarious heart but indomitable bile. In his permanent attire of rumpled pajamas, he sees no need to venture outside. His windows encompass most of his world; for the rest, there is the weekly Variety that his nephew, Ben, delivers punctually every Wednesday along with a week’s provender. Spiritual sustenance comes from the unquenchable rancor against Al, his partner for 43 years in an act Willie broke up 11 years ago, rounded out with some general misanthropy.
Now CBS wants to do a History of Comedy show, for which the famous doctor-and-tax-collector skit of Lewis and Clark (note the historic names!) is a must. To that end, Ben, who is an agent, proposes to reunite the warring comics. He concentrates on his uncle, the more intractable of the two. This provides a finely honed battle of wits, and be it said forthwith that Matthew Arkin gives a thoroughly endearing performance as the Sisypheanly laboring peacemaker. And just when the potential of the Willie-Ben contest is squeezed dry, Al appears, and the laughter shifts into even higher gear.
In Act Two, we get the fraught rehearsal for the celebrated skit, and a renewal of Willie’s grievances: that Al deliberately uses words beginning in t, the better to spit at him, while also poking him black-and-blue with a relentless index finger. Al, in turn, fumes about Willie’s spitefully changing their classic opening line from “Come in!” to “Enter!” (Incidentally, enter lacks the k sound that come has: according to the play, all funny words contain a k.) The rehearsal ends in disaster – sorry, calamity – but enough plot summary: The Sunshine Boys warms you even with its afterglow.
James Noone has designed a winning set, finding the poetry in clutter; Noel Taylor’s costumes and Kirk Bookman’s lighting heighten the high jinks. John Tillinger has directed zestfully, although a coffee-cup-stirring sequence is stretched beyond endurance. Jack Klugman has won his gallant battle with throat cancer: The slight residual croak only adds to his spirited characterization. Tony Randall finally allows his age to show, and this, along with a dandyism nicely contrasting with Willie’s slovenliness (a reminder of the pair’s chemistry in The Odd Couple), is a dandy payoff. Both Peggy Joyce Crosby’s big-bosomed fantasy nurse and Ebony Jo-Ann’s sardonic real-life one register handsomely. If old age emerges more droll than vexatious, let’s hope that life will take up the challenge and imitate art. That at the ripe old age of a quarter-century the play still crackles with cachinnation (note the k’s!) is a hopeful sign.