CEDAR CITY — The Sunshine Boys is the story of a pair of vaudeville comedians who, after 11 years apart, reunite to broadcast one final show. While following its characters for only a few days, Neil Simon’s script uses this simple premise to tell a story that spans more than 50 years.
Al Lewis (David Meyers) and Willie Clark (Eddie Mekka), better known as Lewis and Clark or The Sunshine Boys, were comedy stars of vaudeville. For 43 years they traveled the country together putting on the same sketches night after night. But as popular media changed, vaudeville began to fade. One member of the partnership recognized the shifting tide sooner than the other, and their split up was far from amicable.
We join Willie Clark 11 years after the breakup. Though he was a huge star during his prime, Willie hasn’t adapted to new media, and he spends his days in his pajamas, tripping over his television chord, yelling at his landlord, and waiting for his nephew/agent, Ben (Richard Bugg), to bring him groceries and acting jobs. When Eddie brings the news that CBS has invited Clark to reunite with Lewis for a special broadcast, Willie is less than thrilled. He hasn’t spoken to his old partner in over a decade, and in that time he’s assembled a long list of grievances.
Eddie Mekka combined the perfect doses of wit and impetuousness as Willie Clark. Mekka’s portrayal of a man who had dedicated his life to comedy only to find himself without an audience felt honest and familiar. His use of humor to cope with loss was believable and endearing. Mekka spent a lot of time on stage alone or uttering long diatribes to other characters. Dealing with a lonely man, forced into retirement by a world who was no longer buying what he had to sell, some of the scenes could have easily become more sad than funny if Mekka weren’t such a natural comedian. Happily, Mekka tempered even his most bitter of outbursts with enough levity that I couldn’t help laughing even while digesting the script’s somber themes.
David Meyers was Mekka’s perfect contrast in the role of the more reserved Al Lewis. I had seen Meyers in Lost in Yonkers just a few hours earlier, but his chameleonic abilities made him almost unrecognizable as the same actor in The Sunshine Boys. Besides his costume, Meyers used his posture, facial expression, accent, and inflection to inhabit the character of Al Lewis. Simon’s script puts his characters in several uncomfortable and confrontational situations, and in each of those situations Meyers delivered his lines as though he were just then reacting to an unexpected affront or accusation. More than his delivery, I was impressed by the way Meyers often sat silent and bemused, still expressing the awkwardness and humor that the conversations called for.
Besides Meyers and Mekka, Richard Bugg was the actor on stage most often as Clark’s nephew Ben. As a character, Ben’s good nature is more of a backdrop to facilitate the two quick-witted comedians. Bugg filled the role with the eagerness and frustration of a nephew anxiously trying to help his uncle make the most of his old age. While Bugg’s delivery sometimes felt unnatural, his character’s sincerity and persistent good humor were always apparent.
Most of the action took place in Willie Clark’s crummy hotel room. The set and props (Daniel Whiting & Tayler Tripp) made it obvious at first glance just what kind of ramshackle life Clark had gradually sunk into. The costumes (Sadie Nagle-Perkins) were just as proficient: I knew all I needed to about the two leads’ relationship as soon as I saw Clark in his blazer and pajama pants sitting next to Lewis wearing a pressed suit. The lighting and sound (Michael Grey, Richard Bugg, Camden Meyers, Marty Shurtleff, Daniel Bugg, and Nick Hofheins) were flawless.
Clarence Gilyard’s direction balanced the play’s focus between quick quips and character development so that my attention was constantly engaged by fast-paced dialogue and the unraveling of Lewis and Clark’s relationship. Mekka and Lewis each had a magnetic stage presence individually, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the comic duo when they were on stage together. With its combined strengths, Neil Simon Festival’s production of The Sunshine Boys is well worth the trip to Cedar City.