National Jewish Theater

I never got to see real vaudeville. When I came of age, in the 60s, the old Regal was long gone, the Chicago Theatre defunct. The legendary Adelphi (our answer to New York’s Palace) had dwindled into the Clark, a film revival house torn down in the late 60s. Aside from contemporary re-creations like Rollin’ With Stevens & Stewart, Ziegfeld’s Last Words, One Mo’ Time, and The Club, the closest I got to vaudeville was a crummy music hall in Brussels–and all the acts there spoke and sang in Flemish. Still I watched, spellbound: in show after show, each bill returned to perform the same antics to the delighted audience. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand a word–watching people laugh can be entertainment enough.

Happily, however, Neil Simon can take you back to the glory days. Though his career began after vaudeville’s decline, the King of Gags honed his comic writing on anything-for-a-laugh classic burlesque–its one-liners, double and triple takes, pratfalls, slapstick, slow burns, spit takes, and punch lines; you can taste them in the stuff he wrote for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Phil Silvers Show, and Simon’s incredibly popular plays, films, and musicals, especially the sidesplitting Little Me.

Simon’s love for vaudeville’s spunky veterans shines throughout The Sunshine Boys. Lewis and Clark, ex-vaudevillians who have feuded for 12 years, attempt to revive their act for a television salute to old-time comedy. Vaudevillian in its petty absurdities, the real-life wrangling of the former Sunshine Boys is no less ridiculous than the sketch they try to revive. But to Lewis and Clark the reunion is deadly serious: Clark has never forgiven Lewis for breaking up the act in order to become a stockbroker. And Simon makes us care as much as he makes us laugh. His cantankerous characters may burst into their own little vaudeville sketches–Simon loves to spoof their senility affectionately–but like the memorable coots in Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport (which owes a lot to Simon’s play), they never forfeit a moment of truth.

One reason is Willie Clark, one of Simon’s sharpest creations. A legendary comic who once played the Palace and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show–six times–he’s now living in one room of the five-room suite he used to occupy. (His apartment building has become a fleabag hotel.) Lewis, on the other hand, lives in dignified retirement with his daughter in New Jersey.

Feisty and bumptious, too impatient to slide the latch on his door carefully, forgetting even to eat, Willie watches the tube, stares out the window at the lights of Manhattan, and dreams of a comeback.

Willie’s nephew Ben, a talent agent, wants to rescue him from his rut, and he sets up a one-night reunion of Lewis and Clark on national television, then works overtime to persuade Willie to forget his massive resentments and rehearse with his old partner. But even though Willie will confess that Al Lewis was a comic genius, he won’t forget 43 years of irritations. When they meet, after a dozen years of entrenched silence, ancient quarrels erupt as if they’d been broken off only yesterday.

Based on a vintage Weber and Fields routine, the pair’s doctor sketch is an anthology of howlers, too shameless for me to lift out of context and by today’s standards poisonously sexist. Just when we think that Lewis and Clark will actually pull the reunion off, life gangs up on art: but by the time the show does not go on, it doesn’t matter–Simon has given us enough to make the play’s ultimate reconciliation seem as right as it is happy. We know how much these men want to rekindle a friendship that’s even older than their gripes.

In National Jewish Theater’s excellent revival the laughs are bountiful and gut busting. But that’s to be expected from Tom Gianas, a Second City director who knows–and shows–how many of Simon’s supposedly realistic lines are in fact burlesque bits. But Gianas also drives home the squabbling duo’s late-blooming yearnings: not to be forgotten, to share old laughs with a new generation, to connect with each other and with their past–because only in each other is their past vivid, especially when they kvetch. Simon put a lot of love into these characters, and Gianas puts it all on the stage.

It would be hard to overpraise Byrne Piven’s Willie, a marvel of timing and temperament. Piven goes way beyond generic geriatrics to show the lovable curmudgeon’s brittle bitterness, his theatrical self-pity, his use of senility as a weapon, his aching for approval for his lost art. If Simon roots his laughs in his characters, Piven shows exactly what those laughs cost Willie.

Nathan Davis as Al Lewis chews up a lot less scenery, but his restraint tells its own story. Magnificently Davis shows us Al’s grace under pressure and–something Willie never mastered–his ability to stop acting once he’s offstage. When Al gently tells Willie, “You took the jokes too seriously,” Davis gives it the wisdom of the ages. (Darwin Apel will take the part from July 6 to July 13.)

As the all-suffering Ben, David Alan Novak emphasizes the nephew’s tenderness over the agent’s ambition. It’s a wise choice; Novak’s Ben knows in his heart that even if the Sunshine Boys never get their act together, the effort alone will make Uncle Willie so mad he’ll come back to life. Paulette Williams has a wonderful cameo as Willie’s brusque but loving nurse.

Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s scruffy hotel room really looks as if Willie might have spent half a century watching it decay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.