Van Dyke brothers sell out ‘The Sunshine Boys’

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Dick Van Dyke and his brother Jerry in the last scene of the Neil Simon play “The Sunshine Boys,” which was sold out for its five-performances at the Malibu Stage Company Theater last week. Photo by Diane Peterson

Dick Van Dyke joins his brother Jerry in an “Odd Couple”-esque pairing for the Neil Simon play that was sold out for its five-performance run.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Following a sold-out first night smash of “The Sunshine Boys” at the Malibu Stage Company last week, Jerry Van Dyke remains adamant that he and brother Dick are all wrong for their roles.

“We’re way older than we’re supposed to be. We’re too old to do it,” he said. “We’re both afraid we’re going to fall down.”

All kidding aside, the Neil Simon play about two cantankerous former vaudevillians coaxed into reuniting despite a longtime rift, proved to be a case of inspired casting, considering that the fraternal comedians-Jerry is 79, Dick is 85-have never performed on stage together.

The pairing of Dick and Jerry as the fictional duo of the Sunshine Boys-“Two comic shining lights that beam as one,” it’s mentioned at one point-was the big selling point of a show that drew at least 500 people to the company’s botanical surroundings during its limited fundraising run of five performances from April 13 to 17 for the nonprofit theater company.

In the comedy, Dick plays Al Lewis, and Jerry, Willy Clark, who, like their explorer namesakes suggest, together once blazed a trail of jazz age slapstick. But now they can’t stand each other after 40 years of getting on each other’s nerves drove them apart.

Ben Silverman, Willy’s moonlighting agent nephew, arranges for an audition between the reluctant duo for a television vaudeville revue of their world famous, but overplayed act, “The Doctor Will See You Now.” It’s 1972, Willy, who retired too soon, spends his days reading Variety in his New York apartment, and Al, who couldn’t have retired soon enough, lives in New Jersey with his daughter. As the audience discovers, the old Lewis and Clark magic remains, but issues bubble to the surface, hijinks ensue and though the reunion ultimately falls through, an old friendship is renewed in the process.

The “Odd Couple”-esque pairing of Jerry and Dick isn’t unrealistic considering that the younger Van Dyke, who’s played Willy Clark in various alternate community theater offerings, had begged Dick time and again to co-star with him in that other Neil Simon hit about opposites Felix and Oscar.

“I tried to get him to do a lot of things,” he said.

“He finally got me to do it,” was Dick Van Dyke’s dry response after the pair’s opening night curtain call.

Dick’s hesitance, and later, acceptance of the Al Lewis role is only one example of a Simon play known for its perfect casting as much as its missed opportunities. The original 1972 Broadway run of “Sunshine” starred Sam Levene as Lewis and Jack Albertson as Clark, and later, Lou Jacobi and Jack Gilford in the respective roles.

It was when Herbert Ross’ 1975 film adaptation entered pre-production that a list of stage and screen legends passed through a revolving door of casting attempts. Red Skelton and Jack Benny were originally cast as the leads, but when Benny suddenly became ill and died, George Burns came on board as Al Lewis, a role which arguably rejuvenated his show business career. Skelton dropped out soon after, replaced by the much younger Walter Matthau as Clark. Woody Allen was also linked to the production at one time.

Diane Peterson, one of the Malibu production’s co-producers (along with the theater’s artistic director, Richard Johnson, and Shirley Van Dyke, Jerry’s wife), worked on the original movie in New York City and recalled the teaming of Burns and Matthau together.

“I remember they walked past me on Broadway doing their dialogue, and I thought this was really cool,” she said. “But seeing Dick and Jerry do this, it’s really magical.”

According to Peterson, the opportunity to produce “Sunshine” uncompromised with the Van Dyke brothers was too much for the Stage Company to pass up considering the small window of time-less than a few weeks-between other scheduled productions, and the short rehearsal time it would allow. By all accounts, the sold-out five-date run, Peterson said, was so successful that it’s generated talk of taking the show, with Jerry and Dick, to Broadway for a limited engagement.

During last week, some noted Hollywood names who appeared at the theater included Dick Van Patten, Dick Clark, Kevin Kline and Craig T. Nelson, Jerry Van Dyke’s former co-star on the 1990s sitcom “Coach.”

“It’s fantastic,” Nelson said after Wednesday evening’s opening show. “I don’t know what to say with these two guys together.”

Saturday’s performance was combined with a dinner gala featuring live music and catered food with a Thai flavor, the main fundraising focus for the theater company, which incorporated as a nonprofit 20 years ago, Johnson said.

Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” is the Malibu Stage Company’s next featured production, from April 29 to May 22. Tickets, $25 each, can be purchased online at www.malibustagecompany.com, www.brownpapertickets.com, or by calling the box office at 310.589.1998. The theater is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway.