Basking In The Glow Of The Sunshine Boys
Whatever you had planned for tonight, forget it. Go see The Sunshine Boys at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. If you can't make it tonight, see it Saturday night at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth. After that, it's gone, possibly to Broadway (there's an offer on the table), or maybe just into another regional theater that'll be lucky to get it. If it doesn't go anywhere, that's too bad. They've really got something here.
The "boys" in this revival of the Neil Simon comedy are played by octogenarian brothers Jerry and Dick Van Dyke. As if we needed to be reminded who they are, the show opens with video clips of them from The Dick Van Dyke Show, the classic 1960s sitcom that made Dick a legend and on which Jerry guest starred as his brother's brother. The audience goes nuts at that and they go nuts when the Van Dykes, now white-haired and a little stoop-shouldered, make their first entrances in the play.
Being just OK in their roles as a feuding vaudeville comedy team would've sufficed for the packed house of fans at The Sunshine Boys on opening night. But the Van Dykes, Jerry especially, are better than OK. They're terrific, hitting every comedy beat in Simon's script with expert timing and adding some bits that allude to their own personas crafted on decades of small-screen sitcom work.
When Dick, coming through the front door in the play, stops short in front of a hassock, the audience titters. When he looks down at it and then takes a slow turn out to the crowd, everyone's in on the joke and roars approvingly. (In the opening credits of The Dick Van Dyke Show, he tripped and tumbled over a hassock every week.) Later there's an aside about Dick's bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins. And that's lucky, too.
Jerry, who gets the starring role as Willy Clark, also directed this production, which was financed by Mark Hulme, founder of Dallas publishing and marketing company Five Star Institute. The brothers performed Sunshine Boys first last spring in a 99-seater in Malibu. Amazing that they manage to make the Eisemann's Hill Auditorium, with more than 1000 seats, feel as intimate as a small theater. Their pacing is tight and they kill with subtle moves that they don't overwork even on a big stage.
The surprise here is how touching the actors' rapport is with each other and with their roles. Jerry's character, ailing, unemployed and dependent on a nephew (played by Brent Moon) to bring him groceries and his weekly allotment of cigars, hasn't spoken to his old comedy partner, Dick's character Al Lewis, in more than a decade. The reasons are petty but longstanding: Willy didn't like how Al suddenly retired from their act after 43 years, and he hated Al's tendency to poke him in the chest and spit in his face onstage. But given a chance to reunite on a splashy TV special, the old guys have to resolve their differences and rehearse in Willy's shabby apartment.
Elaine Liner Jerry and Dick Van Dyke in The Sunshine Boys
Whether they'll get the dusty act on its feet or fall flat on their faces on TV is the dilemma they encounter in the second act. Playwright Simon makes sure things don't go smoothly. There is poking and spitting and lots of nasty, hilarious bickering.
Jerry, whose mumbling-stumbling delivery made him a surefire second banana on Coach and Yes, Dear (not to mention My Mother the Car, which he'd rather we all forgot), mumbles and stumbles as Willy, which works fine. He's an old man playing an old man (Jerry's actually older than the character, which doesn't matter). If he forgets a line or two, who notices?
What's lovely is how Jerry finds moments of real vulnerability in his scenes with his nephew in the first act and then with the bossy nurse, played wonderfully by Dallas actress Denise Lee, who sits by his bedside later in the play. His chemistry with Dick is perfection, of course. Their scenes together, fighting and later reminiscing about the old days, are magical.
Dick's character, nattier, a little spryer, not as much of a noodge, has to show us all the reasons why Willy dislikes him but win us over to his side with charm. No problems there. Dick's dapper, crisp rhythms as Al Lewis complement the rumpled rage of Jerry's Willy Clark.
Simon, of course, keeps up a steady rat-a-tat of wordplay. He captures the way old people talk to each other in that confused shorthand of names, places and causes of death.
Simon also includes some lessons in what makes certain words funny. It's the "k" sound that does it. "Cupcake" is funny; "roast beef" is not. "Van Dyke" has a "k" in it. And for lessons in comedy, you couldn't find two better teachers than Dick and Jerry.
The Sunshine Boys plays again tonight, 8 p.m., September 9, at the Eisemann Center, Richardson. Saturday, September 10, at Casa Mañana. Call 972-744-4650 or visit eisemanncenter.com.