“The Sunshine Boys”
By Geary Danihy
Like a bottle of red wine left out in the sun, Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” hasn’t aged that well, at least if the current production at Seven Angels in Waterbury is any measure of what has happened over the years to Lewis and Clark, the two battling comedians of vaudeville fame who are the “Boys” at sunset. What a reviewer for “Time Magazine” once called “a cripplingly funny show” is now only moderately humorous, and is made even less enjoyable by some moments that are actually painful to watch.
Simon’s Broadway hit is the story of Willie Clark (R. Bruce Connelly) and Al Lewis (Buzz Roddy), once top bananas in vaudeville but now retired, with Clark residing in a seedy New York hotel and Lewis living in a spare room in his daughter’s home in New Jersey. The two have been estranged for over a decade, ever since Lewis walked out on the act after a performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” However, CBS is planning a special program on the history of comedy and wants the two to perform one of their signature acts for the show. The unenviable task of getting the two curmudgeons back together falls to Ben Silverman (Max Shulman), Willie’s nephew.
The first act deals with Silverman’s efforts to get his uncle to agree to appear with his nemesis and, having accomplished this, to arrange for the two men to meet and rehearse their act in Clark’s hotel rooms. The interaction between uncle and nephew is vintage Simon – fast-paced dialogue, with Connelly layering non-sequiter atop non-sequiter until Shulman, who does a very nice turn as the nephew, is pulling out his hair.
The antic rhythm downshifts abruptly with the appearance of the other half of the comedic duo. Under the direction of Semina De Laurentis, Seven Angels’ artistic director, Roddy as Lewis is oddly robotic, his every step measured, his dialogue delivered as if it has been downloaded. Yes, as written by Simon, Lewis is phlegmatic, but Roddy takes it to the nth degree and in the process loses the “noodge” aspect of Lewis’s personality that, besides chest-poking and an occasional spoken “T-spray,” drives Clark crazy. The result is that as Connelly snaps and snarls, he takes on the aspect of a crazed Terrier nipping and yipping at the feet of a statue on Quaaludes.
This tenuous interaction between the two leads is carried over into the second act, which opens with a studio rehearsal of the signature Lewis and Clark “The Doctor Will See You” skit, and it is here that the pain begins. Yes, most of the comedy acts in vaudeville were bawdy and anything but subtle, but what they all had, or at least the most successful of them had, was timing with a capital T. De Laurentis’s uninspired staging of the routine takes all of the “fun” and “bad boy” insouciance out of it, leaving behind only stilted lewdness and gestures that Soupy Sales on his worst day would have eschewed.
In essence, Lewis and Clark’s classic comedic act is flat and embarrassing, as are the closing scenes of the play, with Clark now recuperating from a heart attack and Lewis appearing, hat in hand, to see about his ex-partner’s welfare. The only bright spot in all of this is Michelle Gotay’s no-nonsense, candy-eating nurse. She gives as good as she gets from a suddenly enlivened Clark, for Connelly once again has someone to play off of, as he did with Shulman in the first act, and Simon-like embers begin to glow again, only to be doused with the final appearance of Lewis.
In these final scenes, Roddy is essentially avuncular – who wouldn’t like such a decent, caring, considerate man – and Connelly, in a shift that seems psychologically false, becomes a devious whiner – it’s not so much in his lines as in how they are delivered. He is wheedling and Roddy is essentially opaque, until the last moments of the play, when Roddy is allowed to reveal Lewis’s true character. Alas, it’s too little too late.
Times have changed since Jack Albertson and Sam Levene first appeared as the original Sunshine Boys on Broadway, but what hasn’t changed is the essence of comedy, and what is up on the stage at Seven Angels misses the basic comedic point: Lewis and Clark may be at odds with each other, but they can’t help being funny, even as they snap and snarl at each other. From the moment the duo appears on the stage, a shared comedic DNA should be obvious. Unfortunately, when this Lewis and Clark first confront each other it seems they are, at worst, strangers, and at best, a couple that went through years of marriage without ever understanding whom they were married to. What they aren’t, together, is funny.
“The Sunshine Boys” runs through Sunday, March 21. For tickets or more information call 203-757-4676.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.