Neil Simon wrote over 30 plays, many of which have been seen here on our local stages particularly in the 1980’s when a Simon comedy was hot “property”.
“The Sunshine Boys” premiered on Broadway in 1972 and Simon received Tony Award nominations for Best Play at that time. In 1995 he adapted it for a Hallmark Production that aired in 1977.
The play premiered on Broadway in 1972 and the movie, which so many of my generation will recall, starred Walter Matthau and George Burns. Remember them?
By dusting off his “The Sunshine Boys” the North Coast Repertory Theatre brings back a bit of history to our local stages through Nov. 24th. It will be remembered mostly by those old enough to know what vaudeville was but perhaps not eye -witness to.
|James Sutorius as Al|
|Lenny Wolpe as Willie|
Some might have feelings of nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ of comedy/vaudeville. North Coast Rep. has a history of reminding us. The very first Neil Simon I saw at North Coast Rep. was “Brighton Beach Memoirs” back in the 80’s when founding mother Olive Blakistone played Kate Jerome. The very first show produced there was Simon’s “Chapter Two”. So there is history.
Very little sun manages to shine between Willie Clark (Lenny Wolpe) and his long ago partner Al Lewis (James Sutorius) in Neil Simon’s vintage comedy “The Sunshine Boys”
Lewis and Clark, not the explorers team but the comedy team of Lewis and Clark of the 1930’s, are retired to the sidelines after forty years of being Top Banana on the Vaudeville circuit.
The one-time vaudevillians that lasted long enough to keep audiences in stitches had staying power but over the course of time Al and Willie ended up hating each other. By the time the act was no longer, the two were not even speaking.
The clash/crash came after an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show over the word 'Ent..ah!" Lewis wanted out, Clark did not. Lewis won that round and Clark has never recovered or forgiven.
Willie is still looking for that one gig to get him back into the spotlight, but he can’t remember his lines and according to his nephew Ben, a theatre agent himself, his hands shake so he can’t even do close up commercials. Since he never wanted to retire in the first place, he’s been holding a grudge and wants an apology from Al.
Good luck on that one.
Al is retired and living, so it appears, peacefully in New Jersey (the butt of many jokes here with an updated dig at the George
Washington Bridge) with his daughter and her family.
|Lenny Wolpe and James Sutorius|
In some ways Willie’s character could have come straight out of “Grumpy Old Men” as the pro Wolpe schleps around his New York apartment that he deadbolts with at least three or four different kinds of bolts and sliders that he has to manipulate when opening his apartment door. It’s a running joke that gets worn out over the course of the evening.
He is unkempt and unshaven in his pajamas, robe and slippers, (his daily attire), watches TV and waits for Wednesdays, which is his nephew Ben’s (Bryan Banville) visiting day. Why Wednesday you ask? FYI, it’s the day the latest edition of Variety comes out. But does Willy look for a job there? Of course not. The first page he turns to is the obituary page. Just to update you on his personality, it’s confrontational, cantankerous and angry.
|Cast of "Sunshine Boys"|
He’s so locked into the past that he still has rabbit ears on his TV set. Well, it is the 70’s/80’s. He’s also so angry at the breakup of the act that he doesn’t have time to smell the daisy’s; not that they are growing in the cracks of NY sidewalks or anything.
Sutorius’s Al is dapper, soft spoken and passive aggressive.
When Ben proposes that his uncle and his former partner get together for one more, once in a lifetime appearance for a look back at the history of comedy, he absolutely comes unglued. The two have not spoken in ten years. Now CBS is inviting them to reunite one more time.
Getting the two to agree to disagree about the why and the how of their act and what subsequently follows, i.e. having the two in the same room and being almost civil, practically takes an act of Congress and is the basis of Simon’s comedy. It’s silly, oft times frustrating, repetitive and classic Simon.
Watching the two have a go at it is all in the timing and both Wolpe and Sutorius are more than up to the task but the play, while getting its share of ‘one line zingers’ gets bogged down in Act I with too much exposition and repetition. That doesn’t mean to say the humor isn’t there, it just takes too long setting it up in Act I for the two to come together after intermission.
During rehearsals of the skit both continue warring with each other when Willie is suddenly stricken with chest pains. This episode is a wake up call for Willie. It also brings a touch of reality that finally sets in after a time. Both men are at their best showing some humanity from their at odds characters that finally call a cautionary peace after all is said and done.
|Bryan Banville and Lenny Wolpe|
Director Jeffrey B. Moss had the good sense to bring two absolutely solid actors to portray the Lewis and Clark of Simon’s oldie. The comedy team of Wolpe and Sutorius are still able to pull off his thinly veiled plot.
Both actors are well - known to the community. Sutorius who recently won the Craig Noel Award last year for his performance in “The Father” and Wolpe who is main focus of the pair, lists to his credits: "Bullets Over Broadway” , “Wicked” and “The Drowsy Chaperone”.
Sutorius, with his straight-faced stare is the perfect foil for Wolpe’s anger. While never breaking a smile at some of Wolpe’s ludicrous antics, his look is classic. As over the top and emotionally the unstable of the pair, Wolpe, manages an almost resigned Willie as the two… well, Moss gives us some satisfaction at the end.
Some of the what one might have called eye popping and funny when the show first premiered is now downright offensive and so off color that one might have thought good sense should have justified omitted the scene “The Doctor Will See You Now” skit.
|Lenny Wolpe and Portia Gregory|
It resembles a bit from an old Groucho Marx show where Samantha Roper is ‘the Nurse’ in the skit. She is skimpily attired. She’s the one who fills out the reports for the doctor and when she bends over, the Dr. (Willie) looks up her uniform and then with a lecherous smile then looks over at us and we are supposed to laugh? It’s done not once, but at least two times. GIVE ME A BREAK FOLKS!
Portia Gregory is Willie’s nurse at home who is seen eating from one box of chocolates and then another. Banville does as much with his “I’m your only living relative” as he possibly can and John Tessmer and Philip Korth (props) fill in as a few extras.
This is a show for two seasoned and skilled actors, who over the years, have earned a special place in their careers and can afford a Neil Simon in their lifetimes. It’s not the playwright’s best play, (I can name at three or four more) but in keeping with ‘tradition’ most of the folks in the audience with my hair color, seemed to be enjoying it.
Credit to Marty Burnett who designed a very livable space for Willie to wallow around in with kitchen, bedroom, living room bathroom and small entry. Aaron Rumley’s sound design and Matt Novotny’s lighting with Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes give the production an overall good look.
If you are looking to put a little laughter in your lives, try The Sunshine Boys”.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Nov. 24th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00
Photo: Aaron Rumley