Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"The Three Faces Of Old"

This is about being old, and “playing old”, and writing old – hence, the never-before used – maybe for a reason – title:

“The Three Faces Of Old.”

The inspiration for this post comes from my recently attending a performance of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, featuring Taxi alumni Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch.  (Did I go backstage and say hello?  I did not.  Why not?  It’s not what I do.  Why is it not what I do?  “Hey, Earl, we’re in this play in front of hundreds of people.  What are you up to?”  “I’m one of the hundreds of people.”  Yeah, I’m an idiot.)

The Sunshine Boys, Simon’s twelfth stage play (out of a total of thirty-four), originally performed on Broadway in 1972, concerns Al Lewis and Willie Clark, an old-time vaudeville team who, despite an acrimonious split eleven years earlier, agree, (albeit reluctantly – they both consent to do it while “on the record” remaining adamantly against doing it) to reunite for one performance to recreate their iconic “The Doctor Will See You Now” sketch, as part of a television tribute to “The History of Comedy.” 

(Historical Note:  Simon modeled this sketch after the classic “Doctor Krankheit” sketch performed by the vaudeville comedy team Smith and Dale, although they, in real life, were actually good friends.  Weber and Fields and Gallagher and Sheen, on the other hand, not so much.  And do not ask me about Wayne and Shuster.)   

Al Lewis is now retired and living with his daughter and her family in New Jersey.  Willie, remaining in his (now seedy) Manhattan hotel suite which through subsequent subdivision is now only one-fifth of the size it used to be, continues badgering his agent/nephew to find him work, but, no longer comedically fashionable, and unable to retain the name of the product during a rare commercial audition, the one-time co-headliner of a once famous comedy duo has fallen on frustratingly hard times.

The Sunshine Boys, a theatrical relic about two theatrical relics (there are uncomfortable sexist and racist elements in the show that must have been almost as jarring in the seventies, even forgiving that the primary characters were from an earlier era still) is essentially a sketch about a sketch.  

The situation is a comedy writer’s dream.  Simon is free to write joke­-infused dialogue, because the comedian-characters do jokes for a living, so it is totally natural for them to express themselves that way in everyday life.  (The musical comparison would be having an opera singer bursting into song rather than a construction worker.)

Before I talk further about the writing, I pause a moment to discuss the acting, though not in the standard “theatrical reviewer” fashion.  DeVito and Hirsch are both capable actors.  DeVito embodies his character more fully, Hirsch leaning more on caricature.  But it’s a somewhat tricky assignment, confronting both actors with a unique, and contemporary obstacle. 

I’m thinking about my grandparents, who were, more of less, chronologically contemporaneous with Lewis and Clark (the theatrical characters, not the explorers.  God, how old do you think I am!) 

Over the years, something has fundamentally changed about “old.”  The “old” of Lewis and Clark and my grandparents involved a considerable amount of shuffling and sighing.  Even a cursory observation would indicate that “Old” is considerably younger now.  Though approximately the ages Lewis and Clark would be (DeVito is sixty-eight, and Hirsch seventy-eight), the actors nevertheless appear to be demonstrably too young for their parts. 

There’s a hilarious set-piece in the show, where, working in Willie’s apartment, the bickering former partners arrange the furniture, in preparation for a rehearsal the “Doctor” sketch.  Working in total silence, the audience looks on as, no matter what one character does, the other character, oblivious to the first character’s actions, changes it.  Then, noticing something is “off”, the first character moves whatever the other character moved back to what he considers to be the “right” position.  Then, noticing it’s “in the wrong place”, the other character repositions the same item of furniture once again. 

When done skillfully – and it was performed in First Class fashion by Danny and Judd – what you are witnessing is a magical comedy ballet (of precision and stubbornness.)

However, and this was astutely observed by the wife of the couple we attended the show with, when the seventy-eight year-old Judd Hirsch repositioned the table, he inappropriately “lifted it like it was a feather.”

That’s what I mean when I say that they are too young for their parts.  Over the passing recent decades, “old” has become noticeably younger.  But the play stayed the same.  So now, there is a perceptible “disconnect” between the actors and the characters, even when, chronologically, the actors are the right age for the parts. 

Would it be better if they had ninety year-olds playing the parts?  I would not like to see that.  The answer is to find seventy year-old actors who don’t eat well and never go to the gym.

You know what?  This is getting long, and my primary observation is yet to come.

I think I’ll leave it for tomorrow. 

Demonstrating that I am the perfect age for this blog.

I am running out of gas at precisely the right time.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks ought to be about the right age *and* worth seeing. :)

You *have* to tell us: which actor played which part? I'm guessing Danny Devito as Willie and Judd Hirsch as Al.


Canda said...

The movie was originally supposed to star Jack Benny and Walter Matthau, but after Benny died, George Burns was cast, and it made him popular and bankable, and he went on to do movies like "Oh, God".

It is reported from Irving Fein's biography of Jack Benny, that when Benny was rehearsing for the part, he walked across stage and the director said, "Jack, slow down. You're supposed to be 80". Jack WAS 80 and he obviously walked with a youthful gait. So, sometimes you can act young when you're old.

Louie Louie said...

You didn't go back stage??????