Scripps Ranch, CA---Very little sun manages to shine between Willie Clark and his long ago partner Al Lewis in Neil Simon’s vintage comedy “The Sunshine Boys” now playing at Scripps Ranch Theatre through June 29th. Ruff Yeager directs.
Lewis and Clark, not the explorers team but the comedy team of Lewis and Clark of the 1930’s, are retired to the sidelines after forty years of being Top Banana on the Vaudeville circuit. The one-time vaudevillians that lasted long enough to keep audiences in stitches had staying power but over the course of time Al and Willie ended up hating each other.
By the time the act was no longer, the two were not even speaking. The final straw broke after an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lewis wanted out, Clark did not. Lewis won that round and Clark has never recovered or forgiven.
Willie is still looking for that one gig to get him back into the spotlight, but he can’t remember his lines. Since he never wanted to retire in the first place, he’s been holding a grudge and wants an apology from Al. Good luck on that one.
Al is retired and living, so it appears, peacefully in New Jersey (the butt of many jokes here with an updated dig at the George Washington Bridge) with his daughter and her family.
Al: [Talking about his daughter] Tell her that I'm never leaving New Jersey again. Tell her I'm sorry they built the bridge and the tunnel.
In some ways Willie’s character could have come straight out of “Grumpy Old Men” as Phil Johnson schleps around his New York apartment that he deadbolts with at least seven different locks. He is unkempt and unshaven in his pajamas, robe and slippers, (his daily attire), watches TV and waits for Wednesdays, which is his nephew Ben’s visiting day. That’s also the day he gets his latest edition of Variety. The first page he opens to is the Obituary Page. Things go downhill from there. Kevin Hafso-Koppman is excellent as Willie’s exasperated nephew and theatrical agent that Willie nags to death about getting him some work.
Willie is confrontational, cantankerous, loud and angry. He’s so locked into the past that he still has rabbit ears and tin foil on his TV set. Well, it is the 70’s/80’s. He’s so angry at the breakup of the act that he doesn’t have time to smell the daisy’s; not that they are growing in the cracks of NY sidewalks or anything. Al is dapper, soft spoken and passive aggressive.
When Ben proposes that he and his former partner get together for one more, once in a lifetime appearance for a look back at the history of comedy, he absolutely comes unglued. The two have not spoken in ten years. Now CBS is inviting them to reunite one more time.
Getting the two to agree to disagree about the why and the how of their act and what subsequently follows, i.e. having the two in the same room and being almost civil, practically takes an act of Congress and is the basis of Simon’s comedy. It’s silly, oft times riotous, repetitive and classic Simon, but not his best play by far.
Watching the two have a go at it is all in the timing and both Phil Johnson (Willie Clark) and Eric Poppick (Al Lewis) are more than up to the task but the play, while getting its share of ‘one line zingers’ gets bogged down in Act I with too much exposition and repetition. That doesn’t mean to say the humor isn’t there, it just takes too long setting it up in Act I for the two to come together in Act II. Once they do it hums.
Both men are especially funny in their famous “The Doctor Will See You Now” skit, which resembles a bit from a Groucho Marx skit. Missing are Groucho’s cigar and famously bushy eyebrows. During rehearsals of the skit both continue warring with each other when Willy is suddenly stricken with chest pains. This episode is a wake up call for Willie. It also brings a touch of reality that finally sets in after a time. Both men are at their best showing some humanity from their at odds characters that finally call a cautious peace after all is said and done.
The comedy team of Johnson and Poppick are still able to pull off Simon’s thinly veiled plot. Poppick with his straight-faced stare is the perfect foil for Johnson’s anger. While never breaking a smile at some of Johnson’s ludicrous antics, his look is classic. Johnson, as the over the top and emotionally unstable of the pair, manages to reign in his character toward the end as just plain tired of playing the same old game over and over again.
Yolanda Franklin as the over endowed nurse O’Neill is able to give Clark enough ammunition to bring down the house as he gets googley eyed at her while she reads a patient charts giving him lots to leer at. Funny? Depends. Outdated? Yes. Ms. Franklin plays her two roles to the hilt and on target, giving Willie as much attitude as her patient as he doles out to her, thank you.
“The Sunshine Boys” premiered on Broadway in 1972. Simon received Tony Award nominations for Best Play. In 1995 Simon adapted it for a Hallmark Production that actually aired in 1977. Simon wrote over 30 plays, many have been seen her on our local stages particularly in the 1980’s when a Simon comedy was hot property.
Recently Simon’s “The Odd Couple” was mounted at North Coast Repertory Theatre. By dusting off “The Sunshine Boys” a bit of history, mostly remembered by those old enough to know what vaudeville was but perhaps not be an eye witness to, will have some feelings of nostalgia to ‘the good old days’ of comedy. Then it was considered one of the most popular forms of entertainment for several decades.
Some of the same shticks a la The Burns and Allen Show are projected on small monitors overhead before the show begins. It’s a nice touch. Andy Scrimger designed a wonderful set with the contrasting looks of Willie’s messy apartment and a crisp skyline outlined in the background outside the windows of his upper Broadway converted hotel rooms apartment. Mary Larson’s 70’s look is spot on including Ben’s suit jacket with half belted back and flared trousers. Yes I remember them well.
If you are in the mood for a treat and some laughs, head out to Scripps Ranch Theatre and get a gander of Johnson and Poppick knocking heads together to some funny repartee. The jokes belong to Simon; the delivery belongs to these two pros. Enjoy.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 29th
Organization: Scripps Ranch Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: Alliant University, 9783 Avenue of Nations, San Diego, CA 92131
Ticket Prices: Start at $28.00
Venue: Legler Benbough Theatre, Alliant International University