LONDON — Danny DeVito never wanted to be a stage star. He took acting classes in 1960s New York on a lark while studying to be a makeup artist and then used Off Broadway plays like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a steppingstone to Hollywood. He wanted to be famous in the movies, and he also suspected that his looks — five feet tall and fleshy, a New Jersey Italian in a fun-house mirror — would be most memorable there.
London Theater Journal
âSunshine Boysâ in Different Sizes
The contrast between Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths helps reveal the raw hostility at the core of Neil Simonâs play.
- Ben Brantley’s London Theater Journal
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But this summer Mr. DeVito is deploying his body mass to buzz-worthy advantage in a revival of “The Sunshine Boys,” Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy, and on the turf of classically trained actors no less. The 67-year-old Mr. DeVito, best known for portraying coarse connivers on television shows like “Taxi” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” has become a darling of critics and audiences here in the West End as Willie Clark, a sharp-tongued curmudgeon who has a bittersweet reunion with his former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis (played by Richard Griffiths, a Tony Award winner in 2006 for “The History Boys”).
The play’s popularity has producers considering a move to New York, which would be Mr. DeVito’s Broadway debut but only the latest in a life of intriguing career turns. After shifting in the 1990s more to directing (“Hoffa,” “Matilda”) and producing (“Pulp Fiction”), Mr. DeVito veered back to full-time acting in 2006 on “Sunny.” He has developed a rabid following among younger fans as the outrageously amoral Frank Reynolds on the FX series, a black comedy about a barroom gang of five scheming narcissists.
Both “Sunny” and “The Sunshine Boys” were hardly safe bets for his reputation; the television show had low ratings when he joined, and he hadn’t acted in a play in nearly 40 years. But Mr. DeVito quickly said yes to each role for the same reason, he recalled: They are the kind of darkly comic characters that “allow me to follow my bliss.”
“I’ve always tried to pick roles — big roles, very small roles — where the characters have an edgy view of the world, are full of life, give off a so-crazy-I-can’t-believe-it vibe,” Mr. DeVito said as he leaned back in an easy chair in his dressing room, which he has adorned with posters of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley.
“Some of my friends couldn’t believe I was going back to television on an FX show — a blip on the radar, they said — and then they really couldn’t believe that I was going back to theater,” he added. “But at this point in my life I don’t want to overthink things. I know when a role is a good fit for me.”
That fit seems particularly snug in “The Sunshine Boys,” which starred Jack Albertson as Willie Clark in its original 16-month run on Broadway; Walter Matthau was nominated for a best actor Academy Award as Clark in the 1975 film adaptation, while George Burns won a supporting Oscar as Lewis. Along with Mr. Simon’s irascible dialogue, the play is also a physical comedian’s dream. Mr. DeVito draws laughs even when he is simply fidgeting in a chair onstage, albeit in Willie’s red-and-white striped pajamas and thick eyeglasses.
The production offers a variation on the unlikely visuals that made a success of Mr. DeVito’s 1988 movie “Twins,” in which he and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as brothers. In “The Sunshine Boys,” Mr. DeVito’s head reaches the chin of Mr. Griffiths (who is 5 foot 9), and their respective bellies are often like a moon and a planet in uncomfortably close orbit.
Mr. Griffiths, a veteran British actor, said he didn’t know what to expect from his co-star when rehearsals began, noting that Mr. DeVito “exudes casually perfect technique on screen that could come across as a little safe, a little wrong in theater.” Instead he created a persona for Willie that reminded Mr. Griffiths of the film version of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which Mr. DeVito played the mostly silent, gently infantile patient in a mental ward. (He played the same role, Mr. Martini, Off Broadway in the early 1970s.)
“Danny created a whole world of life for Mr. Martini that had nothing to do with words, and that’s what he’s done as Willie,” Mr. Griffiths said. “He’s crackling even when he stands still, and he’s so comfortable improvising lovely little gestures at any moment.”
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