Neil Simon has a gift for taking somber situations and extracting comedy from the characters as they wisecrack their way through life’s inevitable travails. They flirt just enough with tacit pathos to give the humor some depth and lyricism. In one of his earlier plays, The Gingerbread Lady, he weaves the tale of Evy Meara, a cabaret singer who has recently left detox after a bout with alcoholism. This was 1970 mind you, before the jargon of alcohol addiction was part of mainstream culture. It’s remarkably insightful, especially considering the pervasive lack of understanding at the time. It won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Maureen Stapleton, and is described in Wikipedia as “a dark drama with comic overtones.” Now this may have been Simon’s intent, but in any case it doesn’t feel quite as ambivalent The Sunshine Boys, first produced in 1972.
The Sunshine Boys is the ironic title of Simon’s comedy of vaudeville team Willie Clark (R. Bruce Elliott) and Al Lewis (Don Alan Croll) two friends who played together successfully for over forty years. After their long stint together, Lewis retires the act, leaving Clark feeling wounded and abandoned. Clark’s nephew Ben (Ben Bryant) a dismal failure representing his uncle’s theatrical talents, has finally found him a promising endeavor. A chance to earn serious coin for a brief reunion (in a television revue) with his old partner, Lewis. Unfortunately Clark’s unresolved issues with Lewis threaten to scuttle the project, before during and after he grudgingly agrees to participate. His rage and pain are so palpable that Simon’s wit can barely contain it.
Most (if not all) humor has shadowy underpinnings, but Clark’s rejoinders and quips are often eclipsed by his petulance. He’s not a quaint curmudgeon we can dismiss with his perpetual grousing. Like many caring friends he’s impatient with the quirks of a buddy he’s loved for most of his life. His male pride leaves him ill-equipped to deal with his anger purposefully (confrontation would mean exposing his anguish and therefore, his “weak” side) and Lewis is clueless to the emotional reasoning behind Clark’s tumultuous rants. Clark aches for an apology but can’t bring himself to admit the depth of his hurt. When Lewis comes to visit Clark after an apoplectic cardiac arrest, it’s like watching two men groping to find one another in the dark. It’s heartbreaking and amusing, in a way.
We expect the witticisms to redeem the melancholy subtext, and it doesn’t quite happen. Two guys who genuinely care for one another may never get past their differences, because male codes of propriety forbid them from leveling with one another. Or at least from Willie Clark’s point of view. He sits in his pajamas all day because he can’t admit he needs Lewis and he can’t move on. No doubt there is tragedy in his predicament, but Simon’s jocularity just can’t seem to rescue him. I should add here that The Sunshine Boys ends with a relative degree of positivity. Mr. Simon seems torn between accuracy and optimism. I couldn’t say if CTD billed The Sunshine Boys as a comedy, or if this was simply my expectation. It’s a fine (if exhausting) show, full of insight and absorbing content, though it helps to understand, I think, that Simon seems to be exploring a gray area.
The Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents The Sunshine Boys, playing September 20th through October 13th, 2013. 5601 Sears St., Dallas , TX 75206 (one block west of lower Greenville Avenue ). 214-828-0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com.