MIDVALE — Pinnacle Acting Company’s The Sunshine Boys, by Neil Simon, is a diamond of a show that you should not miss. I’m starting my review right now with that, and now I’ll tell you why. Simon’s shows are hard to do correctly. They require timing that, when done well, you think, so what’s the big deal? Anybody could do that. But just go see a Simon show that isn’t done right and you’ll realize what I’m talking about. Pinnacle’s actors have their timing down so perfectly, I think everyone should see it. It’s that good.
A synopsis of the show: The play focuses on aging Al Lewis (Andrew Maizner) and Willy Clark (Ron Frederickson), a one-time vaudevillian team known as “Lewis and Clark” who, over the course of forty-three years not only grew to hate each other, but never spoke to each other off-stage throughout the final year of their act. The stubborn Clark, who was not ready for retirement, resented the wiser Lewis for breaking up the act when he opted to leave show business. It is now the1970’s and CBS is inviting the team to reunite for a special on the history of comedy, with the duo representing the vaudeville era at its best. Clark is convinced by his nephew talent agent Ben (Jeremy W. Chase) to revive one of the old routines one last time.
Here’s how the Pinnacle’s show was structured. It is being performed at the Midvale Arts Center, one of my very favorite venues, as it is small but not tiny. It has one curtain upstage, and the seating is on two levels. It isn’t perfect, but I like it because it is super clean and freshly painted, performers don’t need to wear mics (so we don’t have to deal with that scratchy mic nonsense), and the laughter from the audience resounds within the walls.
And in this show, we laughed a whole lot.
The show starts as the theater goes to black, then a spotlight shines on perky Antonia Horne, who begins each scene with a big card that states the act and scene, reminiscent of the vaudeville acts of yesteryear, one of the themes of this show. Horne also plays the sexy dumb blonde nurse that is part of Lewis and Clark’s act, and (spoiler alert) the nurse that ends up taking care of Willie. Horne does an excellent job—my husband and I loved her. You would never know she was all three characters, and not just because she wore several different costumes and wigs.
Minor roles went to Jared Greathouse as Eddie/Man in Chair, and Josh Leger as Mr. Shaefer. Both of these actors did a fine job and I look forward to seeing more of them.
Jeremy W. Chase’s Ben is the most likeable character. We see his love for his cantankerous, slightly senile uncle. He brings Willie his Variety magazine every Wednesday, along with healthy, low sodium soups and a few forbidden cigars. Willie doesn’t acknowledge Ben as anything but his agent, almost deliberately forgets Ben’s children’s names (Amanda and Michael, by the way), and shows no gratitude for the caring his nephew shows him. Ben is so patient, instructing Willie on how to unlatch the door (don’t pull, just slide it. No, don’t pull it, just slide it) every time he visits. He lectures his uncle, but lovingly. When he gets his uncle the gig of a lifetime, going on TV one last time, he is not just irritated that Willie balks at the idea, you can see Ben’s heart breaking. He knows his uncle is a total has-been, but doesn’t have the heart to tell him.
Fredrickson’s Willie is spot on. He has encompassed the old man’s cranky attitude well—so well I wanted to slap him sometimes. But there is an underlying pain in Willie. He is a lonely old man who feels his career was stifled before he was ready to let it go. I have to admit, the fact that if I were in his situation, it would rankle me a bit, too. We have to wonder if Al had dropped hints that he was ready to quit and Willie just wouldn’t hear it. The more I think about it, the more this seems plausible.
A few times Fredrickson stumbled over his lines, but I’m not sure if this was part of the character or not. It could have been simply a missed line, but because Willie is clearly in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it’s hard to tell. Fredrickson had a wonderful New Yauk accent, flawless timing, and in all ways was Willie. The way he shuffled around in his slippers, pajamas and bathrobe, his hair all mussed up was charming and believable. I loved Willie, was irritated by him, felt sorry for him. I’m sure this is just what Simon wanted.
Maizner’s Al was just as good. His is a tough character to play simply because he is the more patient of the duo, tries hard to please Willie, and gets crap for everything he does. Willie isn’t nice to Al, and I suspect wasn’t the entire forty-three years they worked together. At the end of the show, Al explains that Willie probably never once enjoyed their performances, and after all, they were funny. Why not have fun? Maizner, too, embraced his character, a more persnickety fellow who wears bow ties, has tidy hair, a good attitude. I liked Al more than I liked Willie.
The differences between these two characters are written into the script, but it took two good actors to flesh this out. They did remind me of the two characters in an earlier Simon play, The Odd Couple. These two plays have similar issues, but The Sunshine Boys has several deeper themes not addressed in the other play. Both are funny—hilarious, in fact. I was trying to scribble the funny lines in my notebook and I gave up. See this production just to hear the lines yourself.
But there are some unsettling themes in The Sunshine Boys. Here we are addressing several issues:
- Aging, with all of its inconveniences, but its sadness, too. Both men go from living in grand suites to less-than-luxurious dwellings. Both men suffer from diseases that come with aging—diabetes, arthritis, failing eyesight, failing memories. In Variety every week, Willie finds another name of a fellow actor who has recently died. One of the running comedy bits is that the men always disagree with the person just died.
- Lost dreams are a clear theme. What does a man do when he can’t do the job he loved for 43 years any more? Both men are widowers, so their marital partners and their show business partners are no longer part of their lives. “Now what?” hung within the lines throughout the play. Lewis and Clark were almost like a married couple, working together so much. What do you do when that is over?
- There was another theme that glared at me. This play is about vaudeville. Willie tells us that he can’t remember the brand Frito-Lay to do a potato chip commercial because that brand name doesn’t have a “K” in it. He’d like to do the commercial for Alka Seltzer. That has a “K” in it, and is therefore funny. I admit, the only vaudeville I ever saw was when Ethel and Fred Mertz did their routines on I Love Lucy. Though it looked pretty hokey to me even then, it is the backbone of American comedy. Where did the simpler, purer comedy of yesteryear go? Will my children and their children ever even know what vaudeville is? Is it important to know? The theme of time passing, and maybe passing us (meaning me) by was unsettling to me and it lingered throughout the play.
I won’t tell you the ending of the play because you will go see it, I hope. But we do finally get to see most of the act, “The Doctor Sketch,” that made Lewis and Clark famous, and my oh my—it is delightful. My husband said, “Even though you pretty much know which line will come next, you still laugh.” And again, the two leads have it down so very perfectly, it is a joy to see.
The set for most of the show is stark and ugly, like an old broken-down actor’s apartment probably is. The lighting, sound, and all other aspects of the venue and play are so right you don’t notice them. (Isn’t it funny that you don’t notice the sound unless it has problems?) I spoke with director Lane Richins after the show but didn’t thank him or praise him properly then. I am amending that now. Richins has taken some amazing talent and honed them all to perfection. Bravo!
Several of my theater buddies were in the audience. I have since seen on Facebook that they, too, are praising The Sunshine Boys. These people know their stuff and I can only reiterate: Go see The Sunshine Boys. Yes, I know it’s cold out, I know the holidays approach and we are all getting busy. But The Sunshine Boys will give you some sunshine as the temperature drops. I guarantee it.