Shtick in the Mud

When you can't figure out in which direction the stock market may head or which nation isn't complying with nuclear disarmament, it's soothing to know that somewhere on the television dial things remain constant: Mary Richards will never find Mr. Right, Lucy Ricardo won't headline at Ricky's club, and Gilligan and the gang are doomed to remain on that island forever. In its fall season-opener of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, the Coconut Grove Playhouse delivers a nostalgic visit with old friends that's both as comfortable as a favorite old sweater and as sleep-inducing as a glass of warm milk.

When Simon's comedy about a feuding pair of ex-vaudevillians bowed on Broadway in 1972, Klugman and Randall were riding high in the TV version of the playwright's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple; Klugman won two Emmys for his performance as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, and Randall copped one for his portrayal of prissy photographer Felix Unger.

Now, as cable companies scramble to find room for Nick at Nite's spinoff channel and movie studios rush to fill multiplexes with big-screen versions of moldering TV sitcoms, it seems like a box-office natural to reunite Klugman, Randall, and Simon in a play in which the two actors resume their old bickering ways. Certainly natural describes the two stars, whose comic timing and stage chemistry hasn't diminished a jot in 25 years.

Dressed in pajamas in his disheveled studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Willie Clark (Klugman) spends his days poring over the obituaries in Variety and hounding his theatrical-agent nephew Ben (Matthew Arkin) to get him a booking. In between fussing over the lack of heat in his uncle's apartment and stocking Willie's sparse pantry with food, Ben tries to convince Willie that his career is kaput since the aging trouper infamously botched a paying gig pitching potato chips in a TV commercial by forgetting the sponsor's name. But while the chips may be down, Ben tells Willie he has one last shot: He can split a $10,000 fee with his former partner Al Lewis (Randall) for a one-off appearance on a TV salute to great comedians.

Ranting about 43 years of enduring Al's on-stage antics, Willie makes it clear that Ben is likely to earn his 10 percent commission in aggravation only. The team hasn't even seen each other, much less worked together, since their acrimonious breakup eleven years earlier, when Al prematurely cut short Willie's career by leaving show business to become a stockbroker. "As an actor no one could touch him," Willie bitterly tells his nephew. "As a human being no one wanted to touch him."

Of course the strained reunion between Lewis and Clark that follows merely serves as an excuse for two show-biz pros (Sam Levene and Jack Albertson on Broadway, Walter Matthau and George Burns on film) to strut their stuff, and Randall and Klugman don't disappoint. Showing obvious disdain for Willie's sloppy apartment, Randall's Al strays into Felix Unger territory when he surveys the room's grimy chairs before gingerly perching on the edge of the kitchen table. In another familiar comedy bit, when the partners sit down to discuss their proposed comeback, Randall stretches out stirring sugar into his tea into a five-minute routine, while Klugman's Willie steams in the equivalent of a comedy-class lesson on the timing of a slow burn.

In fact most of Simon's script pays tribute to the comic turns of yesterday. Turning Clark's apartment into a rehearsal hall, the duo resembles Laurel and Hardy as they first move the kitchen table upstage, then downstage, then back upstage before slowly circling the table and stubbornly rearranging each other's chair. From there they take their squabbling to a TV studio for the final run-through of their famous "Doctor" sketch from vaudeville.

Giving over one of the play's four scenes entirely to the sketch, Simon opens the second act with a re-creation of what used to pass for comedy. Leering out from under his fright wig, the white lab-coated Willie tries to play doctor with his buxom blond nurse (Peggy Joyce Crosby) before turning his quackery on Al's visiting taxman and discovering a terminal case of bad puns.

Not surprisingly the rehearsals eventually explode into a fight between Lewis and Clark, with Clark collapsing to the floor complaining of chest pains. Just as predictably, back at home under the care of a real nurse (Ebony Jo-Ann) after a reported hospital stay, Willie begrudgingly comes to a reconciliation with Al.

That pat ending is only the sum total of Simon's formula script. Somewhat ironically, the same thing that killed vaudeville -- stale material -- now renders The Sunshine Boys dramatically passe. Back in vaudeville's pre-World War II heyday, comics could barnstorm the nation for years performing the same routines to new audiences, whereas today a comedian depletes his best material in a few minutes during a Tonight Show monologue seen around the world. Without anything fresh to offer beyond normal TV sitcom fare, The Sunshine Boys suffers from a seen-that, laughed-then affliction.

Only someone who hasn't been around a television set in the last two decades could be amused at the tired interplay between the recuperating Willie and the registered nurse who eats his chocolates and trades insults with the irascible codger. And despite their palpable stage presence, Klugman and Randall's quarreling is just another installment of Grumpier Old Odd Couples. Least funny of all is the script's reliance on jokes about the elderly; perhaps the sight of Willie forgetting how to slide his door lock free gets a laugh the first time, but after his fifth thwarted attempt to open the door, the humor borders on making fun of Alzheimer's victims.

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