Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Sunshine Boys
Also see Sarah's review of The Pajama Game
Director Steven Woolf keeps this show lighter than air, despite the prevailing winds that would drive it toward the Scylla and Charibdes of bitterness and death. As aged vaudevillian Willie Clark, Joneal Joplin is alternately harrowing and hilarious running out the clock in a New York apartment where tea kettles, electric cords and deadbolt locks conspire against him. Whit Reichert is Al Lewis, owlish and seemingly innocent as the partner who walked out of the act years ago.
Neil Simon's play about these two old comics, reunited in the 1970s for a TV appearance, showcases its splendid senior actors in a number of 'beats' that develop into polished routines in themselves. Example: setting the apartment as a rehearsal space, each man goes about upstaging the other in a silent round of musical chairs. Their brinksmanship reaches the breaking point just as the phone rings. Mr. Joplin drops his angry demeanor to gaily answer the phone, for a contrast that is uproariously funny.
Quin Gresham is excellent as the stressed-out nephew, passionately (but economically) arranging a reunion of the two old men. The role of the nephew could be merely thankless, but Gresham easily holds our breathless goodwill as he earnestly struggles with the snake and mongoose act that's fallen into his lap.
Willie Clark finally meets his match in the play's starchy Nurse O'Neill (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). Shortly before, he had the amusing Elena Gronlund to play his buxom, swivel-hipped nurse in a Minsky-style blackout. Nice, the way reality and theatricality intertwine, as in the pre-rehearsal upstaging. Or with those bookend nurses: one real; one really hot. Later, a long career of comic blackouts winds down with a reflection on 'jokes as works,' and a sweet/acrid moment when all the old punch-lines reverberate into the future.
As structurally (and psychologically) perfect as it is, the show also works a little like a Loony Tunes cartoon, with each of the three principals taking turns shooting steam out of his ears. But you'd be hard pressed to find a better set of actors to dispatch vaudeville into its own golden sunset.
The theater is located in the historic village of Arrow Rock, about 13 miles north of Interstate 70 in west-central Missouri, along State Route 41. Bed and breakfast inns are available for the overnight crowd, near a Lewis & Clark historical site on the Missouri River. The theater itself is a great surprise for first-time visitors, sleek and professional amidst the bluffs and cornfields.
Through August 1, 2007. For information, visit them on-line at www.lyceumtheatre.org or call (660) 837-3311.