Sunday, March 28, 2021

513. THE SUNSHINE BOYS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jack Albertson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Sam Levene. (Photos: Martha Swope.)

THE SUNSHINE BOYS [Comedy/Friendship/Old Age/Show Business] A: Neil Simon; D: Alan Arkin; S: Kert Lundell; C: Albert Wolsky; L: Tharon Musser; P: Emanuel Azenberg and Eugene V. Wolsk; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 12/20/72-4/21/74 (538)

Lee Meredith, Sam Levene, Jack Albertson.

One more in a long line of hit comedies by Neil Simon, Broadway’s undisputed king of laughter, The Sunshine Boys set the Broadhurst Theatre rocking with its yock-a-minute proceedings. Most critics were delighted that Simon had provided a serious undertone to the nonstop joking by depicting with unexpected pathos two wonderfully observed former vaudevillians, Al Lewis (Sam Levene) and Willie Clark (Jack Albertson). Lewis and Clark are now old, the latter living in semi-retirement in a seedy Upper West Side Hotel, the former staying with his daughter’s family in the placid suburbs of New Jersey.

Lewis J. Stadlen, Sam Levene.

For 43 years Lewis and Clark were a leading comedy team in the vein of Weber and Fields or, more recently, Smith and Dale, but after a farewell performance on the Ed Sullivan Show eleven years earlier they stopped talking to one another. Acrimony had always plagued their relationship, and it does so now as well when Clark’s nephew (Lewis J. Stadlen), an agent, attempts to reunite them for a TV special on the history of comedy. This effort brings the old sparring partners back together again for another bout of insults and frustration as they rehearse their old burlesque doctor skit (reminiscent of Smith and Dale's Dr. Kronkheit routine, sexy nurse (Lee Meredith) and all). Rancor once again intrudes, however, leading to Willie suffering a heart attack. The live act is subbed for by an old film of it but the pair are brought together when they both retire to the Actors Home in New Jersey to play out their final days.

“[I]ts qualities are so evident, so deft, so effortless that while some people will wish for even more, everyone will be satisfied,” wrote Clive Barnes. Among the many similarly satisfied were Harold Clurman: “the play is funny. The audience laughed, I laughed, you will laugh”; Douglas Watt: “shrewdly balanced, splendidly performed, and rather touching”; and Edwin Wilson: “not the sunniest play around, but it is without doubt the funniest.” Less tickled critics included Jack Kroll, who thought Simon was “back to his true form, the anthology of gags disguised as a play,” and John Simon, who insisted that whatever play lay dormant in the subject could not “survive burial under 10-gags-10-a-minute.”

Esteem for the skillful performances of Albertson and Levene as the crusty old cynics could not have been greater. “Jack Albertson never puts a line wrong. He is always pathetic but never enough to make you cry. Lovely,” chirped Clive Barnes. Of Levene, he said that he was “as tough as vintage chewing gum, and yet with a sort of credible lovability.”

Jack Gilford took over as Clark in October 1973, with Lou Jacobi joining as Lewis in February 1974. Many geriatric actors—like Walter Matthau and George Burns, who starred in the 1975 film version, or Woody Allen and Peter Falk who did the 1996 TV remake—went on to play Lewis and Clark over the years in countless regional, stock, foreign, and amateur performances. The Sunshine Boys was nominated for a Best Play Tony, Jack Albertson was nominated for Best Actor, Play, and Alan Arkin was nominated for Best Director, Play. Albertson also won a Drama Desk Award. With the show’s success under his belt, Emanuel Azenberg went on to produce all of Simon’s subsequent plays.