Neil Simon's valentine to vaudeville "The Sunshine Boys" is helium-light, so it takes strong actors to provide emotional resonance and comic heft. The two canny stage veterans starring in the Falcon Theatre's production enjoyably accomplish the latter; the former is more elusive.
Frank Gorshin--impressionist extraordinaire and the Riddler in the original "Batman" TV series--and Dick Van Patten, who virtually grew up on Broadway but is best known as the "Eight Is Enough" dad, are the long-estranged members of the once-famous Lewis and Clark comedy team.
In the play, directed by Curt Wollan, Gorshin has the central role. He's irascible Willie Clark, subsisting in a shabby hotel, watching soaps and waiting for his long-suffering nephew and agent, Ben (James Van Patten), to bring groceries, Variety and forbidden cigars. Willie's also nursing a grudge: After Lewis and Clark's triumphant "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance 11 years before, Al retired, leaving Willie to struggle solo.
Now, Ben brings news that CBS wants Lewis and Clark to reunite for an American humor retrospective. Will the lure of the spotlight soften Willie's bitterness?
Gorshin, shuffling about in pajamas and slippers, with a petulant face as crumpled as an old leather wallet, is a gleefully calculating curmudgeon, despite one quick impression of Ed Sullivan.
As Ben, the younger Van Patten has some hilarious hyperventilating moments coping with Willie, who deliberately, childishly, misunderstands and misleads everyone in his limited sphere. Dick Van Patten is quieter as the seemingly complacent Al, and if some of that quiet reads more like a touch of real fatigue (he and Gorshin did the recent national tour of the show) he gives as good as he gets as the reunion goes south.
And that's the pleasure in watching these two pros: the wickedly funny back-and-forth snap they bring to Al and Willie's escalating insults, one-liners, patter and irrepressible one-upmanship.
The shadows the "Sunshine Boys" face--the vulnerability of aging performers whose time is not only long gone, but who are also becoming increasingly dependent--are shaped with less conviction. The funny bone is tickled, but the heart isn't engaged.
The supporting cast does a respectable job, although Leslie Thurston seems tentative as the I've-seen-it-all home nurse; Shane Partlow is the stooge and Lola Lesheim has the required va-va-voom as the nurse in the vaudeville sketch that almost makes it to TV; and Jon Andrew Hegge plays the frustrated assistant TV director.
"The Sunshine Boys," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Ends June 2. $25-$30. (818) 955-8101. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Willie Clark...Frank Gorshin
Al Lewis...Dick Van Patten
Ben Silverman...James Van Patten
Eddie...Jon Andrew Hegge
Registered Nurse...Leslie Thurston
Written by Neil Simon; directed by Curt Wollan; original scenic design, Gary Decker; adapted for the Falcon by David L. Ward; costume design by Rich Hamson; lighting design by Nick McCord.