Sure, the witty repartee between grouchy old ex-vaudeville stars Willie Clark (Danny DeVito) and Al Lewis (Judd Hirsch) comes fast and furious in the The Sunshine Boys, playing through Nov. 3 at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre. But it’s the little moments in Neil Simon's often touching but more often hilarious 1972 comedy that reveal the history and chemistry between the two leads. DeVito and Hirsch only need to circle each other like sharks for a few seconds on stage to connect with each other and the audience.
The former Taxi costars show an ease and friendship that is obvious in their characters, a retired comedy duo from vaudeville's heydey who find themselves in the 1970s unable to reconcile old differences or even bear the sight of one another. Clearly the relationship extends beyond the stage: DeVito and Hirsch came out for their final curtain call embracing each other in a bear hug. British director Thea Sharrock's production opened to raves in London’s West End last year, with DeVito joined on stage by British actor Richard Griffiths (History Boys). Griffiths’ untimely death delayed the show’s move to L.A., but it’s hard to imagine a more perfect complement to DeVito’s lovable kvetch than Hirsch.
The two stars have grown old gracefully, but the same can’t be said of Simon’s characters, who struggle with their identities, first separately and then together, before begrudgingly agreeing to perform their act for the first time in 11 years. Willie, forever wearing pajamas in his cluttered Manhattan apartment, is bitter over their break up, home-bound mostly by choice, and somewhat forgetful. But he’s sharp as a tack when it comes to remembering a punchline, like the ''fact'' that all funny words have a ‘k’ and wisdom such as ''I’m happy, I just look miserable!'' Al, by contrast, has resigned himself to the pitfalls of old age: health problems, dealing with family, and the ultimate sacrifice living in New Jersey. Hirsch plays Al as awkward, quiet, and sly.
Balancing out the two old friends is Willie’s nephew (The New Normal's Justin Bartha), a budding agent trying to reunite the onstage duo. Mostly, he just has to stand aside to let his costars shine but Bartha gets in a few zingers of his own and displays a nice mix of exasperation and tenderness.
The second act opens with a rehearsal for the duo’s famous bit ''The Doctor Is In,'' which introduces new minor characters (including the requisite buxom sexy nurse, played by Annie Abrams) and takes places on a cartoonish version of a soundstage that makes it easy to focus on the acting. The second half of the show does drag in spots, particularly the lengthy scenes of Willie’s moping after a health scare. But the saving grace is DeVito’s cantankerous banter with anyone around him and the touching way Simon’s script makes even the silliest of lines feel like a profound commentary on aging. A