By Cindy Mindell
As “Lewis and Clark,” Al Lewis and Willie Clark were the toast of vaudeville. After 40 years in the spotlight, and an increasingly contentious relationship, Lewis wanted to break up the act and leave show business. Clark resented the decision. During the last year of their partnership, the duo refused to speak to one another off-stage. Now it’s 1972 and the two aging and estranged entertainers have been asked to reunite for a TV special on the history of comedy. Will they take the gig? If so, how will their past troubles affect their new relationship and first-ever TV performance?
This is the backstory of The Sunshine Boys, a play by Neil Simon that debuted on Broadway in 1972 and garnered three Tony nominations. After several New York and London revivals, the production will open on June 19 at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) at UConn, part of the 2014 Nutmeg Summer Series.
Taking center stage are veteran actors Richard Kline as Al Lewis and Jerry Adler as Willie Clark. The two follow in the footsteps of fellow acting luminaries including Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Jack Albertson, Lou Jacobi, and Danny DeVito, who played the title characters in the New York and London productions. Kline and Adler each sport a long resume of appearances on stage, screen, and TV.
This is Adler’s second CRT production. In 2011, the part-time Roxbury, Conn. resident originated the role of Gramps in the romantic comedy, I’m Connecticut, by The Simpsons writer Mike Reiss. As a result, he was invited to teach acting in the dramatic arts department for two semesters and was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the university in 2013.
When department director Vince Cardinal asked Adler to return to CRT, and the idea for The Sunshine Boys came up, the actor jumped at the opportunity. “It’s a show I’ve always wanted to do but I was always too young,” says Adler, who recently marked his 85th birthday. “I have always loved the play but I didn’t realize what a huge part Willie Clark is. He never shuts his mouth, just talks and talks, so the memorization is a challenge but it’s one I really love. You want to find out whether the mental capability still is holding up and memorization is a good test.”
Adler is a descendant of the famed Yiddish and American theater family dynasty that began with his uncle, Jacob Pavlovich Adler, in 19th-century Odessa and spread to London and New York. “My family was always involved in Jewish theater – my cousin was Stella Adler; my father, Phil Adler, was manager of the Group Theatre in the ‘30s – so I’ve always been around Jewish theater and actors,” he says.
Adler actually began his performing career on the production end, in 1950, as an assistant stage manager on Broadway, then as stage manager and director in theater and TV. In 1991, he was offered an acting part in the TV series Brooklyn Bridge “and I became an actor,” he says. The TV and movie roles kept coming. He played Hesh in The Sopranos and has a regular turn as Harold Lyman on The Good Wife. His first stage role was on Broadway, in the 2000 production of Taller than a Dwarf. “On stage, you’re really out there, you’re kind of naked, and there’s no going back,” he says.
Like Adler, Richard Kline is finally seasoned enough to take on his role in The Sunshine Boys. After earning a Master of Fine Arts in theater from Northwestern University, he launched a wide-ranging acting and directing career, interrupted only by a year-long tour of duty with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He debuted on TV in 1962 on The Twilight Zone, on stage at the Lincoln Center Repertory Company in 1971, on Broadway in 1989 in City of Angels, and on-screen in 1990 in Problem Child. He is perhaps most widely recognized as Larry Dallas in the TV sitcom Three’s Company.
Among many theater roles, he played the Wizard in the first national tour of Wicked in 2009, and alongside Tyne Daly in the 2011 musical, It Shoulda Been You, directed by David Hyde Pierce. He appeared earlier this year in Other Desert Cities at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and will star as Liberace in All That Glitters, slated for a Broadway production at the end of the year.
Now 70, Kline has a sentimental connection to the play: in 1974, he played Willie Clark’s nephew in a production at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada. When the CRT opportunity came up, “I welcomed it because it’s a wonderful, hilarious play,” he says. “Then they told me that Jerry Adler was in it and I was even more pleased. He’s the cantankerous one and I just react to his cantankerousness.”
Is The Sunshine Boys a “Jewish” play? Both Adler and Kline, who grew up in Jewish, Yiddish-speaking homes, are weaving this question into their respective characters.
“None of Neil Simon’s plays is really essentially Jewish, but the language and timing are fundamentally Hebraic,” says Adler. “Willie Clark is really Jewish, though it’s never specifically mentioned. I don’t think anybody but a Jewish man has played or could play the role – Jack Albertson, Walter Matthau, Jack Klugman [editor’s note: Danny DeVito took a turn in a 2012 London production and reprised the role last year in Los Angeles] – the essence is totally Yiddish.”
Kline agrees. “The dialog is very heavily tinged with a Jewish flavor,” he says. “In one scene, the two guys are at Willie’s apartment and Willie just made tea. He asks Al, ‘Sugar?’ and Al responds, ‘If you got.’ If you got! That’s Yiddish.”
“The Sunshine Boys” by Neil Simon, starring Jerry Adler and Richard Kline: June 14-29, Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, University of Connecticut, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. Weeknight performances at 7:30 p.m. Weekend performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Ticket prices: $10-$43. For tickets or information call (860) 486-2113 or visit www.crt.uconn.edu.
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