Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The Sunshine Boys
Also see Richard's review of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
For those unfamiliar, the play concerns an aging vaudeville duo who have been estranged for some years. After 43 years of making America laugh, Al Lewis (Al Fischer) and Willy Clark (Bill C. Jones), "The Sunshine Boys," split up when Lewis suddenly retired, leaving Clark to scramble for solo acting gigs. Now, when Clark's agent nephew Ben (Josh Russell) arranges a plum reunion of the act for a TV special, Clark balks at working with Lewis again, complaining of his annoying stage habits, but more so still bitter and resentful of being left high and dry all those years ago.
All they have to do for the special is one scene, their famous "Doctor" sketch, and the pay is enticing, so after a protracted negotiation filled with comedic barbs at each other, an agreement is reached and the men begin rehearsals. We get to see the famous sketch, Simon's built-in homage to vaudeville, and the unforeseen plot twist that divides the men again. No spoilers here: there's fun and mayhem and more arguing, and a kind of resolution that leaves us chuckling; it is, after all, a comedy with heart, vintage Simon complete with one-liners and sight-gags.
The play's success depends greatly on the talents of the two leads, their chemistry and comic abilities. Jones delivers well the curmudgeonly demeanor of Willy, and manages the one-liners with some snap. Fischer presents the more dapper Al with aplomb and finesse, playing straight man with the requisite look of cluelessness. Jones pushes a bit, and Fischer can be too understated, but there are good sparks between the two, especially in the second half.
Russell does a great job as the much put-upon nephew, carrying his long-suffering looks lightly. The rest of the ensemble is well cast, ably filling small roles with zest and attitude. Rene Marguerite Banks gives us a nice dry delivery for the cheeky registered nurse, and Katherine Leyva an unabashed turn as the sex object nurse of the sketch.
The set by Leigh Henderson requires massive scene changes at intermission and in intervals, adding significant time; some of it is mysterious, leaving one to wonder why it couldn't have been simplified. Properties by Patricia Tyler add noteworthy period touches, and Carol Clever's costuming smartly enhances character definition.
The music and sound selections by Chris Enni deliver atmosphere and wonderful period TV amusements. Director Karen Altree Piemme mines most of the humor in the script, but could have gone even further; it's a very modest and low-key rendition, sort of Simon Light.
Overall, The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable evening's entertainment, in spite of any flaws. If you're looking for holiday pleasantry that isn't of the ubiquitous Christmas Carol or Wonderful Life variety, this just might fill the bill. Vintage Simon is always fun and his enduring ability to make us laugh reminds us of why he and his plays have become modern classics.
The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon, presented by Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos; through December 15. Tickets $18-$34; available at www.losaltosstage.org or at 650-941-0551.
- Jeanie K. Smith