“Words with a “K’ in it are funny. Casey Stengel is a funny name; Robert Taylor is not funny.”
So declaims Willie Clark, the know-everything and far pushier half of the vaudeville team known as The Sunshine Boys. Neil Simon, who created this still popular geriatric spin on “The Odd Couple” could write his own rules of funny. And, in fact, through several decades churning out fare such as “Little Me,” “Lost in Yonkers” and the “Brighton Beach” trilogy, he kind of already has.
As it happens, Thea Sharrock and the team behind the starry “Sunshine Boys” revival now at the Ahmanson Theatre know a few things of their own about how to make people laugh.
Danny DeVito is funny.
Danny DeVito (as short but feisty Willie Clark) having to reach up two armslengths to unlock his own apartment door is funny.
Danny DeVito, eye to chest with the severely statuesque sexpot nurse played by Annie Abrams in a vaudeville sketch is funny. (Imaging what he would do with her if she acquiesced, however, is just plain disturbing).
Judd Hirsch in a pageboy toupee: funny.
Hirsch, lobbing the deadpan lines to DeVito: funny by default.
DeVito and Hirsch doing a syncopated rearranging of the furniture in Willie’s apartment to set up the doctor sketch: shticky but well-choreographed, a farcical gentle laugh.
I could go on, just as I could repeat the play’s endless stream of rim shot quips which are uniquely Simon-ean. They wouldn’t translate here. They should be experienced by the headliners who know how to land them. Hirsch and DeVito worked some choice anti-chemistry battling it out as good guy cabbie and slimeball dispatcher on “Taxi”. At the Ahmanson Theatre, as gone-to-seed actors slipping not so gracefully into their dotage, the two actors (who are also friends) ramp up a different kind of friction.
And it plays, albeit more like a hummable ditty - a nostalgia piece - rather than a symphony. Sharrock clearly recognizes that “The Sunshine Boys” is as much a kind of later years staredown (written by a then 45-year old playwright) as it is yuk-filled bickerfest. If you can bring an audience to hysterics with one beat and then scare them into submission with the next, you’re doing something right.
Sharrock’s production glances over both terrain, although it rests more consistently on funny. Its engine is DeVito who is reprising the role he played in Sharrock’s West End production opposite the late Richard Griffiths. Willie Clark, truth be told, is a cantankerous rotter, a self-deluded egomaniac who thinks he still has a showbiz career even though he barely leaves his apartment. The man endlessly berates his good-hearted nephew Ben (Justin Bartha) and wages war on his former partner Al Lewis (Hirsch) who he blames for ruining his career by leaving the act 20 years ago (the two men haven’t spoken in 12 years).
But Simon redeems Willie on two fronts. First off, the character is quietly (if transparently) terrified of going to seed and of being alone. And he knows – an employs – the rules. (“Car keys is funny.”)
DeVito who has built a career on inhabiting jerks on the big and small screens knows this guy quite well indeed. The histrionics and sight gags (climbing on a chair, starring down cleavage) are a cakewalk, and he doesn’t let the character go all squishy even after Willie gets taken down a peg or two. Opposite Hirsch or otherwise, DeVito is never anything less than a delight to watch and the stage is indeed fortunate to have him back after an absence of more than 40 years.
Following Griffiths’ death, the decision to cast Hirsch as his replacement has proven to be a bit of a master stroke. This is in large measure – one very much suspects – because of the two actors’ shared history. In a differently conceived revival (without Danny DeVito), Judd Hirsch (who does good abrasive and ego) plays Willie Clark. As Lewis, he pulls back, finding the humor in the straight lines and the reactions to DeVito’s antics. Lewis, it will be remembered, left behind the vaudeville, the showman’s life once it stopped being fun. Now he’s reuniting with Clark not out of a financial need or any desire to perpetuate a long defunct career, but for family reasons. And, yes, maybe to needle his old running mate a bit. Hirsch doesn’t project malice, although the character might nurse some bitterness.
As crafted, “The Sunshine Boys” is a series of head-butting conflicts (Willie vs. Ben, Willie vs. Al) overlaid with the end of life rumination. The laughs are, of course, found in the conflict: DeVito finding a sadist’s glee in tweaking Lee with the word “En-terrrr!” And the Doctor and the Taxman sketch which Lewis and Clark film for a TV retrospective - before it dissolves - offers the necessary glimpse that these two showmen, when not at each other’s throats, could very much bring it. Abrams is delicious in her hot nurse cameo and Gibby Brand also gets a few good laughs as the first part of the scene. Johnnie Fiori, as a different nurse, holds her own opposite a, by then, far more sedate DeVito in the second act.
But the headliners are the ones who deliver. The production is built for funny. En-terrrr the Ahmanson, and learn the rules.
"The Sunshine Boys" plays 8 p.m. Tue.- Sat. , 2 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Nov. 3 at 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$115. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.