By Neil Simon
At the Savoy Theatre, London WC2.
Booking until July 28, 2012
Neil Simon, the comic master of Broadway, has rather gone out of fashion of late, at least on this side of the pond. Considered by some as being too pat with his one-liner at the expense of emotional or dramatic truth, this piece reminds us just what a great playwright he is.
This production also marks the West End debut of Danny De Vito who came to fame in the classic US sitcom Taxi and has since built a solid career in film not just as an actor/ director but lately as a successful producer. Director Thea Sharrock has drawn a wonderfully nuanced performance from him and his great stage presence belies the fact that he hasn’t trod the boards in over 40 years.
Audiences will be familiar with the piece from the 1975 hit movie in which George Burns won an Oscar for playing Al Lewis to Walter Matthau’s memorable comic turn as his rival Willie Clark. The story revolves around ageing vaudevillians who worked as a duo for 43 years but haven’t spoken to each other in 11 being encouraged to reunite for one last time, on a live TV show about the history of comedy. The pair are set to exemplify the best of vaudeville. The action of the play focuses on attempts by Willy’s talent agent nephew Ben (the excellent Adam Levy) to get the cantankerous duo first in the same room together and then hopefully in the studio recreating a old sketch. Their classic sketch “The doctor and the tax inspector” is Simon’s loving homage to vaudeville and it could be straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Needless to say it is not politically correct.
Richard Griffiths, Tony winner for The History Boys but who for many will always be Uncle Monty from the movie Withnail and I, plays the George Burns part. Sadly, he is miscast. Occasionally losing the accent, he is not a convincing match for the pugnacious DeVito when it comes to landing a comic line. It seems a pity too that the contrast between Griffiths’ enormous girth and the pint-sized DeVito has to be ignored when it would almost certainly have been the comic underpinning of any double act.
Sharrock, probably too young to remember the original, brings a great freshness to the piece, something sadly lacking in recent productions of Simon’s work in the West End. By slowing it down a touch and drawing out the more gentle humour of the piece, she unearths the humanity beneath the characters' often brittle trade in one-liners. It’s as much a chronicle of the effects of growing old as it is about show business, and it's all the better for that.
Simon, who made his name writing gags for Sid Ceasar’s live TV shows in the ’50s, produces a flow of great one-liners. Willie to Al: “They say your blood doesn’t circulate any more”. Al (in a raised voice): “My blood circulates. I’m not sayin’ everywhere, but it circulates”. The gags are of course the stock in trade of these two but Simon also uses humour to draw out the frailty and humanity of these two wayward seniors. These are lovingly crafted creations and the piece has great heart.
Hildegarde Bechtler’s set and costumes perfectly evoke the New York of the ’70s but it is to Sharrock’s credit that she has uncovered the heart beneath the gags.
Don't miss our interview with Danny DeVito in the June issue of The American