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Jewish Journal

Neil Simon’s ‘Sunshine Boys’: Can he still make us laugh?

by Tom Tugend

September 6, 2013 | 2:31 pm

Danny DeVito in the London production of “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Johan Persson

Danny DeVito in the London production of “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Johan Persson

Neil Simon is a close runner-up to William Shakespeare when counting the number of plays turned into movies. But can the works by the Jewish lad from the Bronx prove as durable as the prolific output of the Bard of Avon?

Since, even with a lengthening lifespan, none of us is likely to be around 400 years from now, we’ll have to work within a shorter time frame.

Los Angeles theatergoers of all ages will have a chance to judge how well Simon holds up with the appearance this fall of the revival of his hit “The Sunshine Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre.

The play centers on two old vaudeville stars who had split up after a partnership of 40 years and now hate one another’s guts. In addition to Simon’s writing, this production has two factors going for it.

One is Danny DeVito as Willie Clark, and the other is Judd Hirsch as Al Lewis, reunited after starring 30 years ago in the TV series “Taxi.”

DeVito won raves from normally acidic London critics last year for his outing in the same role, exchanging insults with the now-late Richard Griffiths, memorable as the British schoolteacher in “The History Boys.”

In a review of the play, London’s Jewish Chronicle felicitously described Simon as “The Sholem Aleichem of Broadway, chronicling the frustrations and misadventures of the shtetl called Manhattan.”

DeVito himself warned in a London interview that “Sunshine Boys” is a lot more than knee-slappers and belly laughs. “There is a sadness in the relationship between the two men that really got to me, and I think it’d surprise American audiences who might have certain expectations about a Neil Simon comedy — and about me.”

Those of us who were of theater-going age between the early 1960s and the end of the last century need hardly be reminded of who Neil Simon was. Now 86, he has written 34 plays, including both the classic, male version of “The Odd Couple” and a female one. In 1966, he had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway and he has received more awards and citations than any man should be asked to nail onto the walls.

Simon himself averred that he has displayed all such honors in his bathroom.

Among his prizes is a Pulitzer for “Lost in Yonkers” and an honorary degree from Williams College. He expressed his appreciation for the latter with a classic Simon-esque quip, noting, “Actually people with honorary degrees are looked upon with disfavor. Would you let an honorary mechanic fix your brand-new Mercedes?”

And alongside all that, he has managed to squeeze in five marriages.

But what about the younger generation, which achieved cognition after the turn of the century?

Ken Levine, a TV comedy writer, baseball announcer and keen blogger, spied Simon while both were waiting for the valets to bring their cars outside a local restaurant.

Awestruck, he whispered to his kids that Simon was one of America’s greatest writers, to which his young son responded, “Then how come we’ve never heard of him?” Levine continued, “I laughed, of course. Everyone knew who he was. Then.”

Few, if any, Angelenos are more familiar with the master’s plays than Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group (CTG) from 1967 to 2005. During his tenure, CTG staged 15 Simon plays, including seven world premieres, among them “California Suite” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” at its Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and the now-defunct UCLA Doolittle Theatre.

 “We showed that a hit play could start in Los Angeles, not just on Broadway,” Davidson observed.

The relationships between the playwright and the artistic director, however, had their ups and downs.

“Neil fired me in the early 1980s, the only time that ever happened to me in my life,” Davidson recalled. At the time, Davidson was trying to whip into shape a Simon play initially called “The Curse of Kulyenchikov,” when he was informed that “your services are no longer required.”

The play, renamed “Fools,” subsequently opened in Boston and New York under Mike Nichols’ direction, but remains one of Simon’s lesser works.

Judd Hirsch will appear opposite Danny DeVito in “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Joan Marcus

The men patched up their relationship later, when Simon sought Davidson’s advice on choosing a script, and accepted the director’s choice over his own initial preference.

While Davidson praised Simon’s “extraordinary skill as a comedy writer, with “Sunshine Boys” as a prime example, he believes that Simon’s greatest plays are also among his most serious and “humane,” particularly the double-B trilogy of the 1980s — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

Plays that depend on jokes “will be less able to withstand the passage of time,” Davidson said. “Plays are not just about timeliness but depend a lot on the quality of performers who can transcend the time factor.”

Gary P. Konas is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and editor of “Neil Simon: A Casebook.” In a lengthy e-mail correspondence, he analyzed some of his subject’s plays and their chances for longevity.

“I think if a play continues to speak to new generations and is well written, it will continue to live,” Konas wrote. “The best plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams hold up because they’re well written and they express universal human themes.”

Turning to Simon’s plays, he noted, “It seems to me that Simon is on firmest footing when he writes out of his family experience [as with the ‘Brighton Beach’ trilogy and ‘Lost in Yonkers’ and ‘The Odd Couple,’ based on brother Danny Simon and his roommate].

“He also writes well about his profession as in ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor,’ in which he had characters based on Sid Caesar and his fellow ‘Your Show of Shows’ writers. Similarly, in ‘The Sunshine Boys’ [based on a real comedy team], he wrote a metacomedy that allowed him to teach the audience how humor works.”

Further to the point, Konas observed, “Although Simon’s better plays dramatize family relationships, he does so largely through humor. A lot of people are suspicious about the value of comedies, assuming that they can’t express serious themes or that they are simple. The opposite is true. As actor Edward Keane reputedly said on his deathbed, ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard.’ ”

Simon’s popularity makes him an inviting target for critics, but, Konas added, “Just as hippie love beads and other phenomena of the ’60s seem quaint today, it’s fair to ask whether Simon’s plays are now dated, like cell phones the size of a Buick you see in 1980s movies. I think you see isolated moments in his plays that show him trying too hard for laughs.

“But getting back to your central question, the Simon plays that continue to be revived successfully have, by definition, held up. Others, such as ‘The Star-Spangled Girl,’ obviously haven’t. … ‘The Odd Couple’ was funny in 1965, and it will be funny 50 years from now. I’d also put ‘The Sunshine Boys’ near the top of the list because it’s funny even as it analyses its humor, and it covers the serious theme of aging [not so] gracefully.

“Part of the question may be whether Simon can entertain a generation conditioned by on-screen car explosions, sexting, vulgar rap and constant terrorism threats.” 

Simon’s plays, though dealing with distinctly American characters, have enjoyed impressive success overseas, not least in Israel.

Much of the credit goes to Dan Almagor, who translated “Lost in Yonkers” into Hebrew for the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, followed by “The Odd Couple” and “Broadway Bound.” (That’s no mean feat, as anyone who has tried to explain an American gag or a play on words in a foreign language will testify.)

In the ’60s and ’70s, audiences could see five Simon plays simultaneously in Tel Aviv and London, said Almagor, an old and close friend who resides in both cities.

However, as Simon’s playwriting productivity has waned in past years, so has his popularity in Israel, although his impact persists in a different way.

 “We now have a number of Israeli writers who turn out situation comedies using Simon’s style,” Almagor noted.

The last word, fittingly, belongs to Neil Simon himself. In the introduction to the second volume of his “Collected Plays,” published in 1979, the author mused about his success, as well as the pains and joys of writing.

At one point, when he was nursing an ulcer and feeling low, he had two hit shows on Broadway, a new play in manuscript and two films ready for shooting.

“Did I sit back and revel in my good fortune?” Simon asked himself and the reader, then answered: “Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t.”

After a lunch with Woody Allen, who like Simon at the height of his creativity was showered with praise and awards, the two morose New York Jews agreed: “The fun is getting there, the work is the joy, the results are just something to deal with.”

Simon expanded upon the statement, writing, “I’m most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a first draft.”

“The Sunshine Boys” starts previews Sept. 24, opens Oct. 2 and closes Nov. 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre of the Los Angeles Music Center. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.

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