Let's Hear It For the Boys: Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch Star in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys
By Evan Henerson
Playbill.com chats with Thea Sharrock and Danny DeVito about the Center Theatre Group production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys.
There will be those for whom the iconic image of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys will forever be George Burns's Al Lewis stabbing a finger ("the finger") into the chest of Walter Matthau's Willie Clark in the play's 1975 film adaptation. Going back to the play's Broadway premiere in 1972, it was Jack Albertson and Sam Levene nearly killing each other on stage. Twenty-five years later, Odd Couple alumni Jack Klugman and Tony Randall took their shots at Lewis and Clark in the play's only Broadway revival to date.
Time elapses, and roles are often passed on with ties to the Simon legacy. In order to fully appreciate the revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys with Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch set to bow at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre, one might consider both the Boys that had been and the Lewis and Clark expedition that was conceived but never happened.
The germinating seed dropped sometime in the spring of 2007 while British director Thea Sharrock was in Los Angeles directing George Segal, Richard Benjamin and Len Cariou in a production of Gerald Sibleyras' Heroes at the Geffen Playhouse. Segal and Benjamin — who had played Willie's put-upon nephew Ben in the movie with Burns and Matthau — broached the play to Sharrock as a possible vehicle for the two of them.
Sharrock was hooked.
"I absolutely loved the play, and I saw the film, and so it was one of those things that sits on your shelf hoping one day the right moment will come along and you'll get the right people," recalled Sharrock. "There was a reading in L.A., but it was something Richard and George had often thought about and played with, more of a pipe dream."
Pipe dream or otherwise, Segal shepherded the idea over to Richard Griffiths with whom he had worked — along with Sharrock — in the long-running West End production of Yasmina Reza's Art. The project worked its way to the desk of West End and Broadway producer Sonia Friedman, who eventually came back to Sharrock.
"She called and said ‘I've got a play with two actors that I hope you might be interested in and they'd like you to do do it. It's Richard Griffiths and George Segal.' I said, ‘Is it The Sunshine Boys by any chance?'" said Sharrock. "She said, ‘Hang on. Am I the last person to be invited to the party?' It's one of those things that you talk about on and off, like Richard and I would talk about doing King Lear. You have those relationships with actors and are constantly trying to find reasons to work together. Occasionally something hits the right producer's desk at the right time."
With Griffiths gung-ho to play Al Lewis, but Segal not able to commit to a lengthy London run, Sharrock instructed Griffiths to put together a new wish list for the character of Willie Clark. That actor's list, according to Sharrock, contained a few big-name movie stars who would never consider treading the boards, and DeVito.
DeVito, thanks to the pregnancy of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" cast member Kaitlin Olson, was available and interested. DeVito had trained classically, but his last live stage appearance had been four decades ago.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Mercer Arts Center in New York in 1970," recited DeVito. "After that, I came out to California and did a lot of movies. ‘Taxi' was in 1978 and that was in front of a live audience, but I never got back to the stage."
So why this play? Why now?
"You're always looking for new things in life," returned DeVito, "and you get an opportunity. I started out doing summer stock and children's theatre. Working in front of a live audience was the juice, the high that I had been looking for. And it's a great play."
His enthusiasm notwithstanding, Sharrock confessed that DeVito's stage absence did cross her mind. "He told me that he thinks he sort of fell into the movies," Sharrock said. "It wasn't like he never had any dramatic training. It never became an issue. Anybody who sees this play will think it's crazy that this man hasn't been on stage in 40 years."
The production played to packed houses and strong notices at the Savoy Theatre in the late spring and summer of 2012. With DeVito and producer Richard Willis both based in Los Angeles, the next logical step of this Sunshine Boys was a remount at the Ahmanson, birthplace of several pre-Broadway engagements of Simon's plays.
Not long after it was announced that The Sunshine Boys would open the Ahmanson's 2013-14 season with the two headliners re-upping, Griffiths died following complications from heart surgery. Plans were far enough along that any thought of scrapping the L.A. run were dismissed.
"That was a tough one," said DeVito. "We also felt that if we were sitting there looking at Richard he'd be the first to say, ‘Get it up there and bring it in front of other audiences.' He was a spirited and wonderful man. So he's with us, and we're going to make him proud."
Sharrock, who had directed Griffiths more than seven times, concurred.
"There was a moment of reflection where we had to see what was right," added Sharrock, who in her program tribute said that The Sunshine Boys was conceived to be Griffiths' last stage appearance. "In the end, we felt very strongly that if we got the right person to take his place for the right reason, then I know Richard would have wanted us to do it."
The right person proved to be an old stage hand and both a friend and on-screen adversary of Devito's: Hirsch, the two time Tony Award-winning star of Conversations with My Father and I'm Not Rappaport. In fact the two men had intersected even pre-"Taxi" with DeVito filming a guest spot on Hirsch's series "Delvecchio." The push-pull continued for five seasons with Alex's good-guy cabbie Alex Reiger routinely clashing with DeVito's slimeball dispatcher Louis De Parma. Both actors won Emmys for their roles.
Going back even further, Hirsch and DeVito shared the stage in 1970 at the Philadelphia Center for the Living Arts in a production of Rosalynd Drexler's The Line of Least Existence with Hirsch as a psychiatrist and DeVito as a dog having an affair with the doctor's wife.
"There were songs in it like, ‘I'm no mutt in a rut,'" said DeVito. "It was a kind of crazy play, but we had a ball doing it."
DeVito will be 68 when the production opens; Hirsch 78. This time around, the cast is entirely American. Sharrock and DeVito both note that switching Hirsch for Griffiths changes the dynamic of The Sunshine Boys, albeit not to the play's detriment.
"Judd and Richard? Wow. I guess I'd say they're pretty different," said Sharrock. "But of course between the two of them, they're both so experienced and so collaborative. Neither of them would come in here thinking they have everything all mapped out."
And as amusing as those photos of a pajama-clad DeVito may seem, Simon's play — for all its great one-lines and built-in vaudeville routines — is also a drama about a couple of long past their prime. These elder statesmen are starring down their third act — professionally and in life — and not particularly admiring the view. Willie Clark thinks he still has it. Al Lewis knows better, and their reunion will be anything but joyous.
Remember that finger that drives Willie over the edge? That might just be Simon poking away at his audience's discomfort over issues of mortality.
"Audiences are gonna realize it when they see the play," said DeVito. "It's got a poignancy and a tenderness with realizing there's that moment in time when you just can't do it anymore. The reality of the situation is that time is passing and you're getting older. There are certain things to be aware of, but you don't have to surrender in order to be aware of them."
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