The casting of Arte Johnson and Ted Lange as the squabbling old ex-partners in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," at La Mirada Theatre, adds an extra racial element to the play.
The roles of the two geezers, once a famous comedy team, are usually played as old Jews. But here we have one old Jew (Johnson) and one old black man (Lange). It causes a moment's reflection on how unusual a black-white comedy team would have been in the 43 years these two have worked together--or indeed, even now. And the casting evokes another few seconds of thought about the complexities of cross-cultural comedy.
This subtext becomes explicit in only one line: when Johnson's Willie Clark brags to his nephew and agent (Greg Thirloway) that if necessary for a role, he could "do black. I did black in 1928, and when I did black, they could understand the words"--not, he's implying, like the real blacks he now hears on his little TV screen.
But it's just a throwaway remark, with Lange's Al Lewis not even in the room, so it doesn't set off ripples. The same can be said for most of Glenn Casale's staging. It treads the tried and true, but much of the play seems more tried than true.
Johnson, of course, became famous for playing a dirty old man, among other roles, 25 years ago on "Laugh-In," and it's fun to see him tackle another kind of old man--not quite so dirty, except in the sketch-within-the-play, but much more rambunctious. He shows us the zest and the fear inside this apparently defeated man's heart, and he knows how to stop the comic rhythms long enough to add weight to the play with a pause.
Because the title implies that the two roles are of equal weight, it's easy to forget that Lange's role is really of the supporting variety. But like Johnson, Lange knows how to "do old"--and, yes, we understand the moves as well as the words.
The cross-racial casting seems most false in the sketch-within-the-play, which has Willie leering at a pneumatic blonde (Teresa Ganzel) with Al looking on. Even Al's slight degree of interest probably would have been taboo during the era when these two were on stage. A successful black-white team of that period probably would have done material that was closer to the master-servant gags that were delivered by Jack Benny and Eddie (Rochester) Anderson.
The bickering in the rest of the play works well enough, however, and Thirloway whips up some sympathy as he tries to cope with the codgers.
"The Sunshine Boys," La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 24. $28-$33. (310) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Arte Johnson: Willie Clark Ted Lange: Al Lewis Greg Thirloway: Ben Claudia Robinson: Registered Nurse Teresa Ganzel: Vaudeville Nurse
Neil Simon's comedy. Directed by Glenn Casale. Sets by Joanne Trunick McMaster. Lights by Jacqui Jones Watson. Sound by Chuck McCarroll. Costumes by Angela Balogh Calin. Production stage manager Steve Donner.