In its fourth decade, Neil Simon's quirky gag fest The Sunshine Boys works amazingly well. Considering those who have played it, I've always regarded the play as a showcase requiring master comic actors and comedians. But, though it is headed by one exceptional performance, the Jewish Community Center's holiday revival of The Sunshine Boys is a fairly ordinary local production, and it's still a whole lot of fun.
Part character study, part vaudeville routine, The Sunshine Boys looks at two superannuated vaudevillians, Willie Clark and Al Lewis. The pair split up eleven years earlier after 43 years as the famous comic team of Lewis and Clark, "The Sunshine Boys." Now cranky and in poor health in the winter of 1972, they are offered a gig on a history of comedy television show.
We center on Clark, whose exasperated nephew Ben visits him in his dilapidated Manhattan apartment to care for him and who also acts as Willie's agent. Willie still looks for work but says he hates Al Lewis and nurses too many old grudges against him to reunite even for a short bit on a TV show. That setup leads to a hilariously acrimonious rehearsal of their old doctor sketch in Willie's apartment, then a rehearsal on the television set, and finally a resolution back in Willie's bedroom.
Of course, this being Neil Simon's dialogue, their imitation of an old vaudeville act like Ed Gallagher and Al Shean's is no more set up and funny than are Willy and Al's own wisecracks. Rehearsing the doctor sketch, they come up with lines like, "WILLIE: I went to Columbia Medical School. AL: Did you pass? WILLIE: Certainly. AL: Well, you should have gone in!" In their own characters, these old codgers say things like "WILLIE: He was a mean person. His best friends didn't like him." And they do virtual routines on names of old troupers and on their current aches and pains. "AL: My blood circulates. I'm not saying everywhere, but it circulates. WILLIE: Is that why you use the cane? AL: It's not a cane. It's a walking stick. Maybe once in a great while it's a cane."
Greg Byrne's memorable star turn as Willie is worth the price of admission. Byrne tops his good work in many previous local productions with a solidly authoritative portrayal that not only embodies the pangs and pouts of a prankish old man, but also effectively suggests the wily timing of a practiced vaudeville comic.
On opening night, Roger Gans hadn't yet really got into the character of Al Lewis. But he performed the role with clarity and the right timing and expression to keep the comic machinery working. Gans has an odd delivery: Though he really is an experienced older actor, his voice and manner are almost boyish. The rest of the cast play effectively, especially Deb-Maishe as a sarcastic nurse hired to take care of Willie, and Tim Goodwin as Willie's long-suffering nephew Ben.
The production is hardly scintillating, but does provide the necessary stage background. Paula Marchese's workmanlike direction keeps everything firmly in place but, except for Byrne's work, adds little comic invention. Karen Hall's costumes help the characterizations, and Eric D. Potter's lighting provides variety and emphasis.
But Ethan Sinnott's geometrically balanced but peculiar set is too detailed to be merely suggestive and too idiosyncratic to be realistic. Willie's rundown old apartment has doors and woodwork that don't look worn and distressed by age. They rather seem recently painted, yet only with a base coat that still needs a finishing one. And though its furniture is all on one low-lying plane, one window is inexplicably far taller than the other, with a cheap-but-new-looking curtain falling from just below the ceiling to maybe two feet above the floor.
See The Sunshine Boys for Simon's lively comedy and Greg Byrne's fine performance.
The Sunshine Boys,by Neil Simon, directed by Paula Marchese, plays at JCCenterStage, 1200 Edgewood Avenue, Thursdays (except Dec 25) andSaturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through December 28. Tix: $10-$22. Special New Year's Eve performances at 6:30 p.m. ($35) and 9:30 p.m. ($40). 461-2000, ext. 235,www.jccrochester.org.