Just a few minutes into Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” now playing at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, you become acutely aware of what fine comedic performing can do for an otherwise merely amusing play. While much of this production’s joy might easily be attributed to the deft direction of David Saint (celebrating his 10th season as the Artistic Director of the George Street Playhouse), it is the distinctive flair for comedy that is exhibited by all the players that makes the 1972 comedy hit one to cherish.
Jack Klugman, whose past triumphs include his role as Oscar Madison in the TV series “The Odd Couple” and as the star of “Quincy, M.E.,” as well as his lauded gig last season at George Street in “The Value of Names,” is back to tickle our funny bones. He is playing Willie Clark of the now estranged and fictional vaudeville team of Lewis and Clark a.k.a. the Sunshine Boys. Klugman happily again inhabits the role he played in the 1997 Broadway revival co-starring with Tony Randall. Klugman brings to his half of the formerly illustrious show biz partnership the same sharply honed comedic technique and timing that has become his signature. It is a funny portrait of a tough survivor.
But what about Paul Dooley, a character actor of long standing with credits that include being a member of the famed Second City troupe? Occasionally seen playing Larry David’s hostile father-in-law on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and currently in the film version of the hit musical “Hairspray,” Dooley proves he is no second banana as Al Lewis, the other half of the vaudeville team. His subtly embedded contributions provide a crucial balance to Klugman’s more aggressively portrayed character. A hilarious scene, in which Lewis and Clark go through an almost ritualized drinking of tea, is a brilliant example comical shtick and precise timing.
Although Simon’s 1972 play is an occasionally uneasy mix of sentiment and farce, it works its magic by way of its lovingly observed old geezers and the humorously concocted situation they are thrown into — a testy reunion after 40 years for a TV special celebrating the history of comedy.
The play depends totally on the sparring between Lewis and Clark. Clark is a virtual recluse who talks more about working rather than actually initiating plans to work. Relying on his weekly edition of Variety for news (mostly obits), Clark harbors and feeds on hurt feelings from the past. Lewis is a more guarded old retiree whose deadpan facade turns to playful guile when the two old-timers are temporarily reunited in the hopes that they will do their famous “doctor” skit for the TV show.
You won’t believe how much comic mileage Klugman gets from shuffling around in his pajamas in the crummy furnished hotel suite (evocatively designed by R. Michael Miller) he has lived in for years. Watching Klugman as he accidentally pulls the TV plug out of the wall, makes himself a cup of tea, and tries to figure out how to open a door that has five locks, are classic examples of how to make something funny out of nothing. Perhaps the funniest scene of all has Lewis and Clark attempting to re-arrange two chairs and a bridge table to prepare the setup for a rehearsal of their classic “doctor” skit.
Watching Klugman and Dooley deploy their best shtick as their characters rekindle the old glory they once knew is both tearful and heartwarming. The resurfacing of old pet peeves is another story. The balance of the performing power in this case allows the play’s full poignancy to emerge. But don’t doubt that the opportunity to get a laugh is ignored.
There is a very funny convalescent scene between Klugman and Ebony Jo-Ann (also recreating her role from the 1997 revival), as a no-nonsense registered nurse. The nurse has evidently put in her time with dirty old men, but she manages to have quite a bit of fun holding her own against Clark with quick and caustic responses. Michael Mastro is terrific as Ben Silverman, Clark’s ever patient talent agent/nephew, who visits every Wednesday and brings the hallowed copy of Variety. The agitated Ben (“I only get chest pains on Wednesday”) tries his best to get his uncle and Lewis to make peace.
Peggy Joyce Crosby, who made her Broadway debut in 1997 playing the sexy blonde Skit Nurse, is back in all her pulchritudinous glory, and was happily responsible for the slight rise in temperature in the theater last Friday night. All the performers, however, are responsible for the warm glow that will permeate the theater during the run of this play.
"The Sunshine Boys,” through Sunday, November 11, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $64. www.GSPonline.org or 732-246-7717.