Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Sunshine Boys Has a Rough Start

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Lily Allen-Duenas

David Q. Combs and Richard W. Cox
The story of Neil Simon’s 1972 wistful comedy, The Sunshine Boys, revolves around Willie Clark, an aged-out vaudevillian clinging to a mistaken belief in his own skills and continued relevance. Willie’s agent – and nephew – Ben Silverman persists in the Sisyphean task of finding his uncle gainful work in commercials, only to see Willie continue to lose-out on gigs due to his shoddy memory and lack of interest. As such, Willie spends his days disheveled and in front of a television, ruminating on the decade since the sudden end of his 43-year partnership with Al Lewis, the Abbott to his Costello. Predictably, an opportunity comes along for Ben to reunite Al and Willie, but will the Sunshine Boys be able to overcome their mutual enmity and reconcile, or will they remain foes?

Anyone accustomed to the sitcom tropes that have pervaded comedic storytelling since the time of this play’s inception will see the story’s ups and downs plainly telegraphed, yet it remains a well-written piece for the stage by one of the 20th century’s most intelligent and humorous playwrights. The first act is slow to rise, with the second containing the meatiest interactions and best laughs. As per usual, the set, costumes, lighting, and sound at the Old Creamery Theatre all fit well with the tone of the script, and director Patrick du Laney makes good use of the stage and technical abilities of the venue. With the show’s timing and energy, however, du Laney could have spent a little more effort.

The script itself reads like a vaudeville show, with a strong current of one liners, corny jokes, and physical gags. Unfortunately, the principals portraying Lewis & Clark fell shy of the challenge. David Q. Combs (Willie Clark) is appropriately weary at times, but his lethargy persists throughout the play, dragging down the energy of scenes where a more agile or agitated portrayal might have benefitted the dialogue. On the other hand, Richard W. Cox (Al Lewis) is appropriately dour and untrusting during many of his scenes, but seemingly unsure of his motivation or feelings in several others, lending two levels of vacillation to his portrayal, one in-character, the other out-of. Mooring their combined performance further, the actors had neither the timing nor the lines of their tête-à-têtes and vaudevillian patter suitably memorized during the small, opening weekend performance I attended. During only one scene would this forgetfulness have been forgivable as a character trait, yet even then it was more obviously a fault of the performers than the characters being portrayed. This dismayed me greatly, as I could tell that both Combs and Cox were gifted actors, and the lack of audience buy-in combined with the number of stepped-on/repeated lines was somewhat frustrating.

Shining throughout the show, however, was Sean McCall. McCall’s performance as Willie Clark’s put-upon and increasingly exasperated nephew moved the plot forward. Moreover, it packed the most emotional punch of any scene of the night. When people discuss The Sunshine Boys, most of the discussion centers around Lewis & Clark. Indeed, when one thinks about the play’s major productions, what comes to mind first is are the actors who portrayed the titular elderly duo: Jack Klugman and Tony Randall (Broadway in the 1990s), Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths/Judd Hirsch (West End and LA, recent years), and George Burns and Walter Matthau (the 1975 film adaptation). As such, the play seems to be about these two, and pretty much only these two characters. It is, then, quite the accomplishment that McCall made me (and at least a few others) leave the theatre reflecting that The Sunshine Boys was more a story about an uncle and nephew bonding than a story about two estranged friends finally burying the hatchet.

The other roles in the show are quite small, though all were performed with suitable aplomb. Of special note are the two nurses, Jillian Kuhl and Nikki Savitt—though for obvious and different reasons. These minor characters play minor notes, but they add nicely to the timbre of the story.

Overall, the evening was slightly disappointing—mostly due to the energy and dialogue problems between Lewis & Clark. The script has an eminence of comedy, and the Old Creamery Theatre has a long history of quality in the area, so I have faith that these issues will be resolved in coming performances. At the current ticket price, however, local theatregoers might want to wait until closer to closing weekend to be sure.

The Sunshine Boys plays through June 29 on Old Creamery Theatre's Main Stage. Tickets and additional info available at the Old Creamery website.

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