Wednesday, May 30, 2012

'The Sunshine Boys' directed by Thea Sharrock, Savoy Theatre, 29th May 2012

Danny DeVito is intrinsically funny.  He’s a guy so expressive he can even get a laugh with the back of his head.   So, It’s a hell of an accomplishment for the Savoy Theatre to cast DeVito as Willy Clark, the irascible, run down ex-vaudevillian Willie Clark in the Savoy Theatre’s production of Neil Simons “the Sunshine Boys”. 

The show, written in 1972, shows us the troubled reunion of two vaudeville partners who have spent the last 11 years hating each other's guts.  This revival, starring Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths is ostensibly billed as a double-act, but DeVito gets far more stage time and focus. 

Not that this is a bad thing at all, watching DeVito’s Willie Clark huff and puff grumpily around the stage is so compelling you start to think he could pull off an entire production on his own.  His baseline emotion seems to be festering resentment towards the world, and as the heat is cranked up he transforms into a blistering whirlwind of rage.  In terms of petty resentment he reaches almost operatic heights.  It’s an impressively cantankerous performance, yet one which manages to keep the audience on side throughout.  Even when he’s menacing Richard Griffiths with a kitchen knife, the audience still laughs along with him. 

However, underneath Willie Clark’s furious exterior is an entirely sympathetic and downtrodden character.  The core of the character’s resentment for the world is what he sees as his forcible retirement when his partner quit.  He has pretty much given up, spending his days watching daytime TV and reading obituaries  of his former showbiz acquaintances.  He’s not the kind of deluded Sunset Boulevard style star who believes they’re going to be back on top one day, he’s resigned to his lonely life.  He talks about doing adverts for AlkaSeltzer and Frito-Lay, but never with any great conviction.  

The majority of the production takes place in Clark’s apartment, which looks appropriately run-down and dingy.   DeVito looks entirely in tune with his surroundings, wearing striped pyjamas and seemingly melding into his favourite recliner.  We hear later in the play how this was once a large suite which has been shrunken over the years with landlord squeezing in extra rooms to rent out.  This sense of a slowly shrinking world, both physically and in regards to the opportunities available to the character adds just the right amount of pathos without becoming overly maudlin.

 Much of the play focuses on DeVito, and even though they have equal billing, we see far less of Richard Griffiths than I had expected.  As a result, we are somewhat less invested in his character, Al Lewis.  The play does attempt to pull the old trick of spending much of the first act talking about just how annoying and rude the character is, thus building up the audience’s expectation.  The trouble here is that the DeVito character is so entertaining that we can sense that no matter what Griffiths is going to be like, he’s not going to be quite as fun.

Simply by necessity of time on stage, the character of Al Lewis is a bit fuzzily defined.  We hear of why he quit showbiz to become a stockbroker, and that he is now living in his daughter’s spare room.  It is not difficult to imagine a slow burning failure, reduced to the charity of family.  No wonder he wants to ‘get the band back together’.  Griffiths moves with a careful, dignified grace and physically resembles a slightly downtrodden Alfred Hitchcock. 

It’s bit of an anticlimax when we finally meet him.  We expect fireworks between the two from the off, but while DeVito is combative, Griffiths is passive and seems almost oddly reserved, as if the vigour has been sucked out of him.  He seems to be running at a different speed to the rest of the case, talking much slower and more deliberately (and with a slightly shaky NY accent) than DeVito.   There’s an odd contrast between the two men, and although we are told that they worked together for 43 years we never see them functioning entirely as a single entity.  This should happen when they’re performing together in the second act, but somehow they don’t gel quite as they should.   

The narrative bridge between the two characters is Willie Clark’s nephew, Ben (Adam Levy).  He plays an agent who seems to care deeply about his uncle, trying his best to get him work.  His taking on of this Sisyphean task demonstrates his deep and abiding love for his uncle, as does his weekly visits with cigars and variety.  Apart from his role in propelling the narrative, he seems to otherwise serve as the receiver of abuse from DeVito.  It is a somewhat thankless role as the two stars eclipse almost every funny line that he has.  Additionally he seems at times somewhat out of sync with the tone of the play.  His body language seems too expressive and ‘stage-y’ compared to the rest of the cast.  It’s an annoying thing to notice, but you see him moving from pose to pose in an overly mannered way.  In a lesser production this would go un-noticed, but both DeVito and Griffiths have such an expertly tight control over their body language that in contrast, his overtly theatrical movements stand out.

Undoubtedly the funniest scene in the play is the Doctor’s Sketch that opens the second half.  We hear a lot about this sketch in the first half, and it is built up to be the pinnacle of comedic achievement.  With such a build-up I was half expecting never to actually see it.  Sometime’s it’s best to have something built up so much to exist only in the minds of the audience, and only show the events and reactions surrounding it.  So, it’s almost a shock when the curtain rises and we see the set all ready to go.  This is really the lynchpin of the show.  We have been told how funny Lewis and Clark were and how brilliant this sketch is – if this were to fall flat, then the entire narrative would fall apart.

Fortunately it actually manages to exceed expectations.  Suddenly we see what all the hype was about, and why a TV company would want to invite these two back after a decade apart.  It’s a fairly typical classic comedy setup, DeVito plays a quack doctor, and Griffiths his patient.  The humour reminded of the Marx Brothers’ ‘Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel’ radio show, with the quick one-liners, ridiculous situations and the constant never-too-serious air.  There is a glaring problem with this scene though.  DeVito is too funny.  It’s an odd criticism I know, but throughout the first act we are told that Lewis is nothing with Clark.  Yet for the first half of the sketch, Lewis performs with other people and is absolutely sparkling.   It’s not exactly highbrow humour, but DeVito’s lascivious ogling of his pneumatic nurse is probably the single funniest scene in the play – and he does it without Lewis!

 The Doctor’s sketch is a play-within-a-play, and therefore we the audience are in a sense playing the audience of the TV show.  Throughout we’re laughing uproariously, and it makes you wonder why DeVito’s character is so washed up in the first place.  I suppose it’s a battle between narrative, and entertaining an audience.  It would probably have a greater dramatic impact for the start of the sketch to be unfunny, and then become hilarious when the Griffith’s character enters.  We’d know then why it was so important they get together.  But there are two problems with this.  The first is that this is a comedy, and intentionally being unfunny isn’t what a paying audience comes to see.  The second is that DeVito is seemingly utterly incapable of being unfunny.  It’s an interesting conflict, and I suppose the director has to choose between a dramatic and comedic production.  It is admittedly pretty damn hard to argue that the single funniest sequence in the show should be toned down.

The ‘Doctor’s sketch’ scene seems like it should be the climax to the play, and the narrative runs out of steam a bit after this.  For much of the 4th act, DeVito is confined to a bed, and by necessity of plot is subdued and unable to get angry.  It seems somewhat of a waste, and I found myself missing the physicality and intensity of the character, but it does inject a certain elegiac tone to the final scenes.    The ‘let’s get the band back together’ plotline is a little hackneyed, but it’s cliche for a reason.  I’m not the type that begs for a happy ending and everything to be tied up, but the play literally fades out mid-conversation.   With a performance as enjoyable as DeVito’s I wanted one last explosion of riotous fury before the curtain!  Oh well. 

Despite some narrative concerns I thoroughly enjoyed myself tonight, and an awful lot of that was down to DeVito’s performance.  It is worth seeing purely to watch his ball of rage unravelling itself into various contortions as the night goes on.  Richard Griffiths is a great actor, and a hilarious comedian, but he pales on comparison to DeVito’s charisma here.  At the end of the show, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation – I think we all knew who we were applauding loudest.

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