Without the pleasures of a funny plot or characters who exist outside of punch lines, The Sunshine Boys offers only the chance to see two stars in person. Gravel-voiced from battling throat cancer, Klugman overcomes his vocal impediments with energetic physical comedy. For example, at one point Klugman's Willie bangs on a small television set, grabs the rabbit-ears antenna, and contorts his body in wild gyrations to improve the reception. As his calm counterpart, Randall struggles with an elusive Yiddish accent but emerges victorious in a thoughtful portrayal of a man who never confuses a show-business job with a life.
A strong ensemble fills out the cast, with Arkin delivering the production's most well-rounded performance as Willie's practical caretaker nephew. Concerned about his uncle but not wishing to intrude on the old man's independence, Arkin's Ben moves the plot along while superbly playing the exasperated straight man bombarded by Willie's rim-shot zingers. In walk-on roles as the feisty nurse and the television stage manager, Ebony Jo-Ann and Stephen Beach invest their thinly sketched characters with personality, while Peggy Joyce Crosby and Jack Aaron serve nicely as human props (the nurse and the patient) in the "Doctor" sketch.
Director John Tillinger keeps the focus on the marquee names and allows his stars the time to develop their rapport with each other and with the audience. And to his credit Tillinger maneuvers the cast through diverting side trips down the well-traveled avenues of Simon's standard comedy routines. Still, the most impressive element of The Sunshine Boys is its technical wonders. James Noone's disgustingly grungy grease-stained studio, nestled beneath a backdrop of two looming Manhattan apartment buildings, marvelously realizes Willie's dilapidated apartment. Also worthy of note is T. Richard's Fitzgerald's amazing sound design, which enables the audience to understand every line of Klugman's raspy dialogue.
There was a time in the Fifties when Broadway moguls fretted that the free entertainment offered by the burgeoning phenomenon of television would keep people from going to the theater. With this Broadway-bound production, producers are banking that couch potatoes trained to substitute familiarity for characterization and to laugh at by-the-numbers situation comedy will also welcome a staged version of an updated rerun. My guess is that the play's New York City reception won't be any better than that provided by Willie's rabbit ears.
The Sunshine Boys.
Written by Neil Simon; directed by John Tillinger; with Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Matthew Arkin, Peggy Joyce Crosby, Ebony Jo-Ann, Stephen Beach, and Jack Aaron. Through November 23. For more information call 442-4000 or see "Calendar Listings.