Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Sunshine Boys"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New Englandís LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Neil Simon
directed by Curt Wollan

Willie Clark Ö John Davin
Ben Silverman Ö James Van Patten
Al Lewis Ö Dick Van Patten
Directorís Voice Ö Claude Gritts
Eddie Ö Cory Scott
Sketch Nurse Ö Monica Heuser
Registered Nurse Ö Illeana Kirven
Patient Ö Michael Kreutz

It is sobering to think that even the most successful or influential playwrights must bow to the passing of Time and the ever-changing public taste. (The world shook but did not crumble when Samuel Beckett died in 1989.) In his day, Neil Simon was the King of Broadway --- the man had four shows running simultaneously in the 1960s, and for almost two decades it was a rare Broadway season that didnít boast a play or a libretto penned by him. Mr. Simon is --- was --- the Man Who Made You Laugh; after writing a string of hits that defined the Broadway comedy sound which, in turn, re-defined the television sitcom sound, Mr. Simon went semi-autobiographical with equal success, climaxing with LOST IN YONKERS; his track record then faltered with more flops than was good for his reputation and, aside from his memoirs, Mr. Simon has been silent for some time. How will Mr. Simonís canon appear, in retrospect? As long as there are slobby men in the world, THE ODD COUPLE will always find an audience but who does COME BLOW YOUR HORN, THE STAR SPANGLED GIRL or THE GINGERBREAD LADY, anymore? Broadway has just revived SWEET CHARITY for a second time which does not guarantee a return of PROMISES, PROMISES despite its catchy Bacharach score. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, Mr. Simonís longest-running success, has become a period piece --- New York 1963 is light years away from New York 2005 --- and PLAZA SUITE and THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS are now best suited for summer stock and dinner theatres provided they are staffed with ďnameĒ actors in order to become must-see Events, again. Being born as period pieces, Mr. Simonís autobiographical plays may become his perennials; his Indian summer Romances; his farewell.

THE SUNSHINE BOYS (which could also have been called THE OLD COUPLE) is unique in that, like Mr. Sondheimís FOLLIES which appeared at the same time, Mr. Simon was poised between the past and future: two old, estranged vaudevillians, Willie Lewis and Al Clark, have a chance to re-enact one of their sketches as part of a television special on the history of comedy. This one last grasp at stardom doesnít pan out and the two men will end up in the same retirement home, together. That is all there is to THE SUNSHINE BOYS --- old age and bickering --- but Mr. Simon clearly loves Willie (the extrovert) and Al (the introvert) as much as Willieís agent-nephew Ben does and shows to the audience, if not to them, that their working relationship was, at heart, a marriage where each man literally took his cue from the other and even now continues to plug into the otherís existence regardless of time and space. (Their banter could easily run into one of their old routines, and Mr. Simon has provided not only a guaranteed laugh-getter in the shape of an unyielding front door but also the sketch itself with Willie as a quack/doctor and Al as his patient/victim.) For all its expected wisecracks, THE SUNSHINE BOYS has some depth that it is implied more than demonstrated and this comedy-drama, his first successful dip into the past, may have encouraged Mr. Simon to later to write in a more personal vein.

Troupe Americaís production, genially directed (in period, thank you) by Curt Wollan, has toured nationally and has now settled in at the Stoneham Theatre with some local substitutions, primarily that excellent fellow John Davin as Willie. Mr. Davinís appeal lies in his never pointing out his diminutive cuteness and his Willie is a scrappy beagle pup, grown old; when he comes alive for the television sketch, Mr. Davin, in an Einstein fright-wig, bounces about as if his canine joyously remembered how to perform on its hind legs. (His repeated gesture of tossing a cigarette lighter over his shoulder foreshadows Willie tossing everything over his shoulder in the sketch.) As Al, Dick Van Patten gets applause upon his first entrance --- I know little about Mr. Van Pattenís stage, film and television career so Iím in the dark regarding his established persona; suffice it to say that he contributes a delightful, dead-pan characterization that is equal parts physical decline, wounded dignity and a reluctance at slipping into his old role as Willieís stooge; between them, the Messrs. Davin and Van Patten make a believable team --- but itís Mr. Davinís show. James Van Patten as Ben has little to do but clutch his chest over the old menís mood-swings (does every high-strung New Yorker always have asthma or panic attacks when excited?), and Monica Heuser and Illeana Kirven are very funny as two types of nurses: the former, an inflato-doll for the sketch; the other, a talking-back lady with a lamp.

Gary Decker has designed a lovely, dilapidated apartment in which Willie can rage and haunt as the ghost of his own past, and if Kevin Rottyís original music consists of cymbal crashes and buh-dump-BUMPS in the doctor sketch, they will do nicely as those sounds, like Willie and Alís comedy, have also slid down the timeline. It was good to hear them again.

"The Sunshine Boys" (5-22 May)
395 Main Street, STONEHAM, MA
1 (781) 279-2200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New Englandís LIVE Theater Guide