Shtick in the Mud

When you can't figure out which direction the stock market will head or which nation isn't complying with nuclear disarmament, it's soothing to know that at least somewhere on the television dial things remain constant: Mary Richards will never find Mr. Right, Lucy Ricardo won't headline at Ricky's club, and Gilligan and the gang are doomed to remain on that island forever. In its fall season-opener of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, the Coconut Grove Playhouse delivers a nostalgic visit with old friends that's both as comfortable as a favorite old sweater and as sleep-inducing as a glass of warm milk.

When Simon's comedy about a feuding pair of ex-vaudevillians bowed on Broadway in 1972, Klugman and Randall were riding high in the TV version of the playwright's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple. Klugman won two Emmys for his performance as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, and Randall copped one for his portrayal of prissy photographer Felix Unger.

Now, as cable companies scramble to find room for Nick at Nite's spinoff channel and movie studios rush to fill multiplexes with big-screen versions of moldering sitcoms, it seems like a box-office natural to reunite Klugman, Randall, and Simon in a play in which the two actors resume their old bickering ways. Certainly natural describes the two stars, whose comic timing and stage chemistry haven't diminished a jot in 25 years.

Dressed in pajamas, in his disheveled studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Willie Clark (Klugman) spends his days poring over the obituaries in Variety and hounding his theatrical-agent nephew Ben (Matthew Arkin) to get him a booking. Between fussing over the lack of heat in Willie's apartment and stocking his sparse pantry with food, Ben tries to convince the aging trouper that his career is kaput since he infamously botched a gig pitching potato chips in a television commercial by forgetting the sponsor's name. But while the chips may be down, Ben tells Willie he has one last shot: He can split a $10,000 fee with his former partner Al Lewis (Randall) for a one-off appearance on a TV salute to great comedians.

Ranting about 43 years of enduring Al's on-stage antics, Willie makes it clear that Ben is likely to earn his ten-percent commission in aggravation only. The team hasn't even seen each other, much less worked together, since their acrimonious breakup eleven years earlier, when Al cut short Willie's career by leaving show business to become a stockbroker. "As an actor, no one could touch him," Willie bitterly tells his nephew. "As a human being, no one wanted to touch him."

Of course, the strained reunion between Lewis and Clark that follows merely serves as an excuse for two show-biz pros (Sam Levene and Jack Albertson on Broadway, Walter Matthau and George Burns on film) to strut their stuff, and Randall and Klugman don't disappoint. Showing obvious disdain for Willie's sloppy apartment, Randall's Al strays into Felix Unger territory when he surveys the room's grimy chairs before gingerly perching on the edge of the kitchen table. In another familiar comedy bit, when the partners sit down to discuss their proposed comeback, Randall stretches out stirring sugar into his mug into a five-minute routine, while Klugman's Willie steams in the equivalent of a comedy-class lesson on the timing of a slow burn.

In fact, most of Simon's script pays tribute to the comic staples of yesterday. Turning Clark's apartment into a rehearsal hall, the duo resembles Laurel and Hardy as they first move the kitchen table upstage, then downstage, then back upstage before slowing circling the table and stubbornly rearranging each other's chairs. From there they take their squabbling to a TV studio for the final run-through of their famous "Doctor" sketch from vaudeville.

Giving over one of the play's four scenes entirely to the sketch, Simon opens the second act with a re-creation of what used to pass for comedy. Leering out from under his fright wig, the white-lab-coated Willie tries to play doctor with his buxom blond nurse (Peggy Joyce Crosby) before turning his quackery on Al's visiting taxman and discovering a terminal case of bad puns.

Not surprisingly, the rehearsals eventually explode into a fight between Lewis and Clark, with Willie collapsing to the floor complaining of chest pains. Just as predictably, back at home under the care of a real nurse (Ebony Jo-Ann) after a hospital stay, Willie begrudgingly comes to a reconciliation with Al.

That pat ending is only the sum total of Simon's formula script. Somewhat ironically, the same thing that killed vaudeville -- stale material -- now renders The Sunshine Boys dramatically passe. Back in vaudeville's pre-World War II heyday, comics could barnstorm the nation for years performing the same routines to new audiences, whereas today a comedian depletes his best material in a few minutes during a Tonight Show monologue seen around the world. Without anything to offer beyond normal TV sitcom fare, The Sunshine Boys suffers from a seen-that, laughed-then affliction.

Only someone who hasn't been around a television set in the last two decades could be amused by the tired interplay between the recuperating Willie and the registered nurse who eats his chocolates and trades insults with the irascible codger. And despite their palpable stage presence, Klugman and Randall's quarreling is just another installment of Grumpier Old Odd Couples. Least funny of all is the script's reliance on jokes about the elderly; perhaps the sight of Willie forgetting how to slide open his door lock gets a laugh the first time, but after his fifth thwarted attempt to open the door, the humor borders on making fun of Alzheimer's patients.

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.

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