Dick Van Patten has made his way to Massachusetts loaded with a script by Neil Simon. The former epitome of the pater familias (a la Eight is Enough) puts buskin to board as he brings to life Al Lewis, an aging Vaudevillian and half of the fictional comic duo Lewis and Clark, in Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, running at the Foothills Theatre in Worcester from January 29th through February 22nd.
Though he is mostly known as Tom Bradford from the aforementioned television program, Dick Van Patten’s career has been considerably versatile, much more so than the average viewer might think. He began his career being billed as Dickie Van Patten, starting at the age of seven and taking on a continuous series of Broadway roles, including spots in three Pulitzer Prize winners (On Borrowed Time, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Mr. Roberts, where Van Patten played opposite Henry Fonda). Since his days with a veritable plethora of television progeny, he has been busy with a variety of projects, and has turned in comedic performances in a couple of recent Mel Brooks films (remember his frantic huffing as the planet Druidia ran out of air in his turn as King Roland in the sci-fi parody Spaceballs?), as well as some stage work to boot. After Tony Randall and Jack Klugman revived Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in 1997 (original premiere 1972), Van Patten signed on for the role of Lewis in the touring company.
From that tour Van Patten brings with him director Curt Wollan, the man responsible for last season’s musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the original regional hit How to Talk Minnesotan, the Musical. He also brings his son, James Van Patten, a veteran of big screen, small screen, and stage. Though his is not as yet as familiar a name as his father’s, James Van Patten also has quite a few performances under his belt, including a critically acclaimed role in the film Young Warriors and spots of his own in two other Mel Brooks’ films, Life Stinks and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In The Sunshine Boys, the younger Van Patten plays Ben Clark, the nephew of Willie Clark, onstage former partner and antagonist of the elder Van Patten.
Al Lewis has retired from comedy, choosing to spend his time on the porch of his daughter’s suburban home. He has not, however, retired from his eleven-year bout of non-speaking with former comedic partner Willie Clark, who is played by Boston-area actor John Davin, and whose own daily activities entail the watching of much soap opera and the perusal of the obits in search of old friends and/or cronies. Clark’s nephew, Ben, attempts to arrange a healing of the ex-Vaudevillians’ forty-three year relationship, via a final television appearance in salute of American entertainment. The question is whether, with such deep and animating animosity between the two, he will succeed. Despite the potential for raw sentiment, comedy rules the day with a combination of wit and witlessness (in the form of slapstick gags) as the backstage backbiting rolls on.