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The Sunshine Boys: Simple Simon and Well Cast If Odd Couple

Danny Devito and Judd Hersh (Photos: Craig Schwartz)

Danny Devito and Judd Hirsch (Photos: Craig Schwartz)

The best thing about Center Theatre Group’s revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is its canny casting. At the heart of this comedy is the reunion of a hit vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark, who were known during their 43-year-long run as “the Sunshine Boys,” haven’t performed together -- or seen one another -- for 11 years. It’s therefore a stroke of casting genius to reunite Danny DeVito (Willie Clark) and Judd Hirsch (Al Lewis) -- who co-starred in the beloved, long-running TV sitcom Taxi -- as the estranged vaudevillians. The problem is getting this divided duo back together again is more difficult than the reunification of North and South Korea.

Although I don’t think that DeVito and Hirsch had a rupture similar to that which led to the breakup of Lewis and Clark and their act, this production of The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre marks the first time they’ve worked together since Taxi rode off into the sunset of TV-land in 1983.

This is very much DeVito’s show, as Clark appears in more scenes and has more lines. He performs the schtick auds have come to love and which he patented and perfected from 1978 to 1983 on ABC and in its final season on NBC as the opportunistic, irascible (and short!) taxi dispatcher Louie De Palma. One could say that the flamboyant DeVito is playing a version of his screen persona, and he does so with verve and wit. There’s a hint of the reticent, morose, philosophical cabbie (and tall!) Alex Reiger in Hirsch’s portrayal of Lewis, but this seems to be more of depiction tailored specifically for the role Simon wrote.

Annie Abrams, Judd Hirsch, and Danny DeVito

Annie Abrams, Judd Hirsch, and Danny DeVito

Their onstage bickering, badgering and bantering is for the most part, amusing and it’s good to see these two old television favorites back together again. (Taxi alums Marilu Henner and Rhea Perlman attended the premiere, as did Sunshine’s 86-year-old bard himself, Neil Simon.) The playwright’s forte and specialty are love/hate relationships, as what is probably his biggest hit -- on the stage, big screen and little screen -- The Odd Couple and its various permutations attests to, as do Simon works such as 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, for which Richard Dreyfuss struck Oscar gold while the film received four other Academy Award noms, including for Best Picture, Simon for Best Writing and Marsha Mason for Best Actress.

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Johnnie Fiori and Danny DeVito

Johnnie Fiori and Danny DeVito

The problem is, other than DeVito and Hirsch’s inspired casting, redolent of their offstage back story that mirrors the play’s reunification theme, this production of The Sunshine Boys has little else to commend it. The East Coast Jewish humor is very stale and dates back to 1972, when I saw it on Broadway with Jack Albertson. The opening night crowd at the Ahmanson laughed a lot, but your humble reviewer only smiled at around half the jokes and laughed out loud just a handful of times. Whereas in 1972, the play -- which is not updated -- did not strike me then as being passé and anachronistic, it does now. While the welcome mat is still out for Shakespeare’s far older comedies, this simple Simon play may have worn out its welcome.

Ironically, the play really comes alive when Lewis and Clark reteam and perform one of their old vaudeville routines, which within the play’s context they had probably premiered during the 1920s or 1930s. For some reason, the 1970s dialogue is far less funny than the humor from the much earlier period. The bit is enlivened by Annie Abrams’ leggy, busty Miss MacKintosh (get the apples reference?), although some might look askance at this caricature of a sexually attractive woman. With the jokes about the buxom blonde’s derriere and her skimpy outfit Miss MacKintosh might be more at home in a burlesque house than on a vaudeville stage -- or, perhaps, at the Spearmint Rhino. Some may also feel that Johnnie Fiori’s turn as an African American nurse has stereotypical elements.

The sets by Hildegard Bechtler, which only change once in this two-acter, are likewise lackluster and Thea Sharrock’s direction is serviceable. Overall, unless theatergoers are diehard DeVito, Hirsch and/or Simon fans, there won’t be much laughter on the 23rd or any other floor in this revival, with its well cast odd couple.

ed rampell

The Sunshine Boysplays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. through Nov. 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info:; (213)972-4400.

Ed Rampell

Thursday, 3 October 2013