Rarely is the line between art and life as thin as in this production of Neil Simon's wistful tribute to old Broadway. In the play, a classic comedy duo is reunited for one last spin on the merry-go-round. In life, the production itself brings together the stars of a favorite long-running double act.
To confuse the issue still further, "The Odd Couple," the TV show that forever joined Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in our affections, was based on a Neil Simon play. By the first scene of the second act, when the pair perform an old routines for a television special, any attempt to forget Felix and Oscar is futile.
Inevitably, the fictional actors and the real ones seep into each other, and the effect is moving. Simon's play may be no more than a well-drawn sketch about two old-timers who hate each other but have to perform together, but the presence of Klugman and Randall gives it another life. The oldest Broadway cliche in the book "The show must go on" takes on a surprisingly intimate meaning.
Even if you wanted to, you could not forget the actors and focus simply on their roles. For the first and most obvious thing about the production is that Klugman's voice is, after his successful struggle with throat cancer, rough and hoarse.
This does not diminish his performance. Klugman is such a skilled actor that he can get a laugh out of a mundane piece of stage business like taking a tea bag out of a cup. His movements, his gestures, his easy stage presence, make up in eloquence what his voice by itself lacks.
But the hoarse voice does give you, in a way that the play alone could never manage, a vivid sense of an old Broadway pro soldiering on. We touch a much deeper human reality than anything in the script.
Klugman and Randall, in any case, really do feel like a comedy team that spent decades on the road together. When they say on stage that "You get to know what makes an audience laugh," the line rings true. All the old vaudeville virtues timing, pace, the straight man's feeding of lines are on display. When you watch them together, you know that these guys would never be quite the same apart.
Director John Tillinger has the good sense to let them at it, making efficient, unobtrusive use of James Noone's fine sets. Matthew Arkin likewise sticks to his job of being the hapless buffer between these two twisted egos. The other roles are, like much of the script, servicable pieces of Simon's machinery.
But this is, in the end, it's less a play than a tribute to the enduring, and endearing persistence of two grand old men of the theater.
Perhaps it is merely that happy coincidence of the casting, but Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, now appears to be a kind of sequel to "The Odd Couple."
It is one of those points you can term academically moot whether this would have seemed so glaringly evident if the two vaudevillians, Willie Clark and Al Lewis of "The Sunshine Boys," were not currently being played by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, with the timing of a cuckoo-chronometer hand-crafted by Rolex.
After all, these two, over the TV decades, have become indelibly associated with the oddities and contrasts of Simon's earlier classic creations and archetypes, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.
When "The Sunshine Boys" was new, almost exactly a quarter-century ago, I don't recall quite the same connection being made with the roles then being given - and very well given - by Jack Albertson and Sam Levene. But now it seems inevitable.
I suppose the slimly contrived situation and the fatly conceived characters do have all the elements of an "Odd Couple" episode. Setup, snag in, play out, payoff: The simplicity of the play could virtually be embraced in a 3D-minute sitcom.
Setup: Ben Silverman, Willie Clark's nephew and agent, comes to the veteran vaudevillian with the proposal that he team up with his erstwhile partner, Al Lewis, for a onetime gig: a star spot on a TV special commemorating the glories of vaudeville.
Snag in: Willie hates Al. He hates him for retiring some 10 years earlier, leaving him to forage alone as "a solo act." He hates him for his seeming on-stage aggressions. These Sunshine Boys had more than their share of secret but tempestuous squalls.
Play out: With enormous wariness, Willie and Al come to a guarded, cold-war truce and agree to tape their celebrated "doctor" sketch, an old burlesque routine of vintage humor. Expectedly enough, with the taping, unexpected disaster strikes.
Payoff: Well, the whole play is quite agreeably formulaic, and you can undoubtedly fill it in for yourselves. Even if you can't, I can assure you that when you see the play (and you should see the play, if only for the inspired performances of Oscar and Felix - I mean, of Klugman and Randall), its ham-on-wry conclusion will come as no surprise.
Simon's sure-footed craftsmanship has probably been enhanced by the mildly surgical cutting the play has received, and his one-liners shrewdly rooted in the characters - are as exquisitely apt as ever in their endearing corniness.
John Tillinger's staging is admirably crisp, and the supporting roles are modestly well-performed. Ebony Jo-Ann does a nice and easy job as Willie's no-nonsense temporary nurse, although Matthew Arkin seems somewhat bland as the nephew-agent with his weekly Wednesday supplies of Variety and cans of healthful soup.
But what audiences want to see are Klugman and Randall doing their thing - and no one will depart disappointed.
Klugman - endearingly irascible, mulish, stupidly lovable - and Randall - prissy, precise and hopelessly vulnerable - are indeed the odd couple of the sanest dreams.
They are quite perfect, and play with, against and on one another just like a vaudeville partnership that has been at it for years. Which – in quite a real sense - is what they are and what they have been.
So, to that degree - as always in the best of Simon - this is both lifeimitating art and art imitating life. The imitation is all.
''You know what your problem was, Willie? You always took the jokes too seriously.'' So says one aged ex-vaudevillian to another in Neil Simon's ''Sunshine Boys,'' a comedy in which living for punch lines has nearly fatal consequences. It's obvious that Willie Clark, the character played by Jack Klugman in the revival of the play that opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, would be a healthier man if he could just uncoil a little. But aren't we lucky he can't?
Otherwise, we would miss the delicious and oddly affecting spectacle of Mr. Klugman wielding one-liners like a cornered, exasperated terrorist with an Uzi. Or the snapping-turtle aggressiveness in the way he extends his neck to punctuate catalogues of his dislikes. Or the manic, evangelical heat with which he explains why words with a ''K'' are funny. As a lonely septuagenarian holding on like a lockjawed terrier to the rhythms of the routines that made him famous, Mr. Klugman does indeed give a seriously funny performance.
That his partner in John Tillinger's highly enjoyable, surprisingly touching revival for the National Actor's Theater is Tony Randall adds inescapable resonance to the verbal combat on stage. Younger versions of Mr. Klugman and Mr. Randall can be seen, of course, in an eternity of mutual irritation in the syndicated reruns of ''The Odd Couple,'' the 1970-1975 sitcom based on Mr. Simon's earlier play.
Here, they do and don't look like their vintage television selves. Unlike their previous appearance together for the Actors Theater (of which Mr. Randall is the founder) in ''Three Men on a Horse,'' this one makes no attempt to pretend its stars are younger than they are. Balding pates and slackened jaw lines are, if anything, emphasized rather than camouflaged.
The effect is jolting at first, as though these men had suddenly been released from the deep-freeze of the small screen and started melting. At 75 and 77, respectively, Mr. Klugman and Mr. Randall look, in a word, old. They do not, however, act it.
Oh, sure, they mime their characters' deterioration convincingly enough. (Or Mr. Klugman does; Mr. Randall often seems ready to spring from his assumed stiffness and dance a tarantella.) But there's the energy of young men in the rancor of the old comedians they portray: Al Lewis (Mr. Randall) and Willie Clark (Mr. Klugman), a pair of Smith-and-Dale-like headliners from a lost era of theater. As Mr. Klugman, especially, makes clear, hostility can be a vitalizing force. So can pretending that all the world is indeed only a stage on the vaudeville circuit.
Nearly all of Mr. Simon's plays are crammed with quips, but he has never used one-liners as relentlessly or, more important, as appropriately as he does in ''The Sunshine Boys,'' first seen on Broadway in 1971, with Jack Albertson and Sam Levene, and the basis of the 1975 hit movie starring Walter Matthau and George Burns.
The play is a portrait of men for whom comic style is a religion. They define themselves by their delivery and timing, and even in the full throttle of anger, fear or despair, they can't break the cadences of their old routines or stop behaving as if the world were their straight man. To level the usual accusation against Mr. Simon, that he overdoes the jokes, is to miss the point here. Those jokes are organic; Lewis and Clark are reflexively writing the script as they bicker along.
You probably know the plot. Clark stopped talking to Lewis 11 years before the play begins, when Al announced he wanted to retire just after they had appeared on ''The Ed Sullivan Show.'' Now, Willie's nephew and agent, Ben (Matthew Arkin), has been asked by CBS to reunite the two for a television special.
The setup is obvious, and the payoff is, too. But for the most part, Mr. Simon has managed to inflect a contrived form with a variety of emotional shadings. Because of this, ''The Sunshine Boys'' still works and probably always will; it's the author's most eloquent statement on comedy as a defense system.
Mr. Klugman knows exactly how to manipulate that system, too. The play's opening scene, set in Willie's hotel apartment (a model of domestic degeneration designed by James Noone) on the Upper West Side, finds Willie asleep in a chair in rumpled pajamas. He seems hopelessly inanimate, an unmade bed in human form. But from the moment he's wakened by a whistling tea kettle, he's on, bouncing quips off the television set and the apartment walls.
Even the increased sandpaper qualities of Mr. Klugman's always raspy (and here specially miked) voice, a consequence of his battle with throat cancer, feed effectively into the picture of decrepitude animated by an inextinguishable spark. And once Mr. Arkin, in a likable performance as the solicitous, aggravated nephew, arrives onstage, the portrait just keeps getting richer, locating feelings of rage and abandonment in Willie's snappy comebacks, which perversely makes them even funnier.
Those expecting an exact reproduction of the chemistry between Mr. Klugman and Mr. Randall in ''The Odd Couple'' may be surprised to find a shift of emphasis. Though Mr. Randall's Al, like his Felix, has a dapper, fastidious mien (as opposed to Mr. Klugman's unredeemable slob), the balance of energy has changed. It's Mr. Klugman who progresses to the edge of hysteria here, while Mr. Randall milks laughter from the long, impassive set of his face.
Mr. Randall doesn't inhabit his part as thoroughly as his co-star does. (For one thing, his Brooklyn accent keeps slipping.) But there's a haunting, Buster Keaton-ish quality to his melancholy presence that complements Mr. Klugman's ferocity. Their characters are both, in different ways, men in mourning.
Mr. Tillinger's affectionate, lively direction has a few inspired new touches, including a lovely image of Al and Willie when they're first left alone together, with their backs to each other like bookends. Other bits of business, like Al noisily stirring his tea, go on for too long. And the second act, both as written and performed, isn't quite up to the first.
But these are small objections about an evening that keeps you laughing and then leaves you surprisingly moved. Certainly, there are worse ways of staring down old age and mortality than with barbed comedy. And while your first reaction on seeing the stars of ''The Sunshine Boys'' may be to wonder at how old they now look, that will quickly give way to sense of how impossibly vital they are. A life in the theater, for all its ego-bruising wear, is apparently a most effective tonic.
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.