Danny De Vito is a small but perfectly formed legend, whilst Richard Griffiths is a somewhat larger one. Put them together in a play by the masterful Neil Simon and it should be a recipe for success. Except that it kind of isn’t!! Great to be able to say I’ve seen the Hollywood star and Withnail and I treasure on stage but, unfortunately, Thea Sharrock’s production of The Sunshine Boys doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s true that I went to an early preview performance, so I’m sure the production has tightened considerably, but the chemistry between the two marvellous actors was somewhat lacking and the pace flagged.
The play concerns two old comedians, Willie Clark (Danny De Vito) and Al Lewis (Richard Griffiths) whose vaudeville double act is the stuff of legend. The only problem is that, although Al retired from the act eleven years ago, they actually hadn’t spoken off stage for twelve months prior to that and now CBS-TV have offered them a one-sketch reunion. Willie’s long-suffering nephew and agent, Ben Silverman, excellently played by Adam Levy, is more than keen for the two old comedians to bury the hatchet and do the show, but it’s an up-hill struggle. Willie is holed up in an old Broadway hotel spending his days plodding about in jim-jams and scanning Variety magazine for show-biz obituaries, whilst Al has moved to New Jersey to live with his daughter and family. Neither want to see each other, let alone re-kindle their working partnership, but somehow Ben persuades them to change their mind and they finally get together to rehearse thirty minutes into the First Act. Nothing’s changed; Al still prods Willie in the chest and spits at him whenever he uses the letter T and the bickering and hostility hasn’t deteriorated over the intervening years.
Unfortunately there is no emotional depth between these two old vaudevillians, although their legendary doctor sketch in Act Two does bring some laugh-out loud moments. On the plus side, the relationship between Willie and his nephew is totally believable as is the interaction with the latter character and the Nurse, beautifully portrayed by Johnnie Fiori. I’m not sure if the piece misfires because it’s difficult to believe the two old curmudgeons were once great comedic partners or because the whole play is just rather dated and overly long.
It’s a great pity because De Vito and Griffiths are great actors in their own right, just not together on stage at The Savoy Theatre in this particular play.