6 September 1973: Simon, The Sunshine Boys

Broadhurst Theatre, New York

The Broadhurst is one of the smaller Broadway houses, just a bit larger than “intimate,” or possibly the next size up. It was a little over half full in the orchestra, and an almost empty balcony. I can imagine operating on a house this small, especially since I and a goodly number of other persons had bought our tickets half-price (mine, Row F right, $9.00 for $4.50 +.50 service charge), and so it must be seasonal (late August – early September doldrums) and in addition attrib­utable to one of the worst heat waves on record. But the theatre was air-conditioned.

And the performance, if not really sparkling, was up to pace. I was ready to enjoy it, laugh and relax, but as the first act moved on, it became a case of “trying to like Neil Simon.” What is the difference between this play and the TV series “The Odd Couple”? Nothing, really. And this is only incidentally because Simon himself is the author of The Odd Couple, one of his hit-a-year Broadway plays (which I didn’t see). It is the commodity-craft of the one-liner. Okay, there are some funny lines, only one instance of which I can remember:

Clark (quack doctor in a vaudeville skit): I went to Columbia Medical School.
Lewis (tax collector/patient): Did you pass?
Clark: Yes.
Lewis: you should have gone inside.

Granted, this is intentionally corny, broad as an old vaudeville routine gag, which is exactly what it is. But it’s exactly on material of this kind that Simon can somehow build a whole play. As I recall, Clive Barnes wrote a glowing review of this play in which he said that here we see the apotheosis of the one-liner (or something like that) — i.e., here is a play about an old vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark (get it?), Who specialized in the outrageously broad farcical situation which provided a loose structure for as many good pieces of repartee as the straight man / comic man duo could deliver, in machine-gun rapid-fire sequence; and thus Simon had found a sort of quintessential subject, since his own writing is essentially this same kind of thing. But — Barnes adds — Simon makes a Molièresque play out of it by allowing the lines to grow out of char­acter. Lewis and Clark are Lewis and Clark, crotchety, short-tempered, evasive, outrageously difficult to get along with, yet forced to get along with each other for forty-three years because their act — their million routines — was such a success.

Barnes may have a point. There is a little pathos, undoubtedly genuine, in the futile attempt of the two comedians to come back together in a final farewell sequence on a CBS “World of Comedy” Special, after a lapse of eleven years following Lewis’s sudden decision to retire and the bitter quarrel that resulted. But this is really wishful thinking on Barnes’s part, and the comparison with Molière is especially revealing, and unintentionally depreciative of Simon. Because Simon is really the ethical opposite of Molière. In Molière, people are not just prisoners of Second Avenue, they are prisoners of themselves; lifers. They can’t get out; or if they do, they quickly relapse into the old, fallen being again. In Simon, people do not have to end up paying for their mistakes, or just paying for being themselves. After Lewis and Clark argue on the CBS rehearsal set and Clark has a heart attack, Lewis sends pseudonymous flowers and candy, too proud to say he’s sorry, but sorry all the same. Clark’s agent-nephew Ben per­suades Clark to see Lewis — and, after the typical wounded-pride routine, they fall into each other’s arms, happily reconciled, laughing at one another, quarrel­ing good-naturedly with one another. But the reconciliation just doesn’t mean that much. And the reason it doesn’t is that reconciliation is foreign to Molière — and, more important, utterly foreign to the vaudeville routines that supported the lives of these two men.

A Lewis and Clarke vaudeville sketch — we only saw half of one, but they are all the same and all end up the same way — ends in total, and totally comic, disaster. “What could be worse than…?” — immediately becomes a prologue to the worst: presumably, in the sequence “The Doctor Will See You Now” (if I remember the title correctly), the quack doctor (Clark) and the tax collector and unwitting patient (Lewis) continually take turns getting the upper hand on one another, punch line by punch line, until some ultimate point of cross purposes is reached, a climax in which two comic antagonists reach a posture of resolute, inveterate opposition, or alternatively a posture of correlative victory and defeat. But not reconciliation. Simon shouldn’t be compared to Molière. That’s just not fair. But he should be compared to the vaudeville sketch that, in a highly sophis­ticated way, is his not-so-covert stock in trade, and he comes out wanting. What could have been character lapses into sentiment. That is what “Broadway” means. Broadway Neil, they should call him.

The audience was amused, nonetheless, as indeed they should have been. After all, when do we get the chance, except for clips from old Ed Sullivan shows, to see two comics like Sam Levene and Jack Albertson do their stuff? Albertson, who actually did vaudeville years ago, has real charm; he is a wonderful shaggy old dog, all bark, no bite, in whom it is a point of basic pride to be fundamentally inept, a helpless invalid of life’s misfortunes supported by a battery of defense mechanisms sufficient for a whole home full of old actors.

Sam Levene is a master of the quick retort, the stony-faced veteran of a hundred thousand insults, but in whom decency is also written in stone. (The whole thing makes one want to sound like Walter Kerr, master of the pre-emptive metaphor; and, in large measure, this is Kerr’s kind of play. (And I would maintain this even if someone showed me a panning review of it by him.) Together the two are a perfect, complementary pair, and in the first scene of Act II, in the TV studio, the dress rehearsal of the old sketch is a masterly piece of rapid timing, a sheer delight. Just like the old days, until they quarrel once again (— just like the old days). They deserve something better than a Neil Simon Alka-Seltzer commer­cial, where terminal heartburn is cured like magic by the clean white pill, the old familiar effervescent Broadway remedy, the gratuitous happy ending bestowed out of sheer generosity by the playwright, who can afford it because he is a very wealthy man.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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