WORCESTER -- During 43 years as partners, comedians Al Lewis and Willie Clark covered more territory on the vaudeville circuit than their namesakes did on their journey of exploration. But as Neil Simon's 1973 comedy classic "The Sunshine Boys" begins, neither would cross the street to see the other. Willie's agent, nephew Ben, hopes to unite the duo for a TV variety show to reprise their classic sketch, "The Doctor Will See You Now" -- an unlikely proposition since they can't stand each other.
This bittersweet comedy was written toward the close of Simon's magical period, when he routinely had multiple shows running on Broadway. It's partly a wisecracking meditation on mortality, but it's also an argument against messing with a successful formula. Willie insists on changing the act, and it nearly kills him. One suspects the two imported stars appearing in the Foothills Theatre Company production -- TV/Broadway actor Dick Van Patten (Al) and his son James (Ben) -- are more open to shaking things up. For the past year, they, like Lewis and Clark, toured the show all over America, with Frank Gorshin. For this stop, Worcester's Foothills Theatre Company has supplied a local cast.
So Willie is played by area actor John Davin, who brings a splenetic incandescence to a role that combines Oscar Madison's snarl and Felix Unger's snippiness. He's a malevolent, elderly toad who squats in the disheveled chamber of his SRO hotel and delights in fuming over Al's defection years back. Everyone must pay -- especially (once he turns up), Al. These crusty old showmen are no boys and radiate anything but sunshine. As Ben, James Van Patten has a tendency to rush his lines, though he's supremely likable -- apparently a Van Patten family trait. But it's the elder Van Patten whose understated, watchful demeanor reveals deep theatrical training. He's thoughtful and implacable and most enjoyable when the partners rehearse their skit on a soundstage. Though both Davin and Van Patten are pretty perky for supposedly broken-down old showmen, their exuberance doesn't detract from the verbal comedy.
Director Curt Wollan (who directed the Van Pattens on the tour) seems to have urged the Worcester company to hurtle through the rat-a-tat dialogue. (At least that was true at the final preview: Subsequent performances might well help the actors find an easier rhythm.) Gary Decker's apartment set is agreeably squalid and realistic (nice touch with the droopy drapes and easy-chair afghan in lurid '70s orange). Russ Swift has lit the proceedings with a uniform brightness that plays up the sitcom appeal -- and brings out the sunshine in these gloomy but winning old boys.
The irony is that they exist during a period when Ed Sullivan still casts a shadow and when network TV would actually give a pair of old hoofers the time of day.