Review of The Sunshine Boys
By Neil Simon
Directed by Ron Nash
For tickets / schedule :
Belrose Theatre, San Rafael
RUN: March 31 – April 15, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars
(April 1, 2017)
The bustling heyday of Vaudeville languished toward the late 1940s, leaving comedy teams marooned and turning to alternate work. Inspired by the era are the fictitious “Sunshine Boys”—Al Lewis, who gave up his top hat to become a businessman and retired happily onto a porch in New Jersey, and Willie Clark, who refused to acknowledge that his acting career was over, clinging to every scrap of opportunity, even as he grew too senile to remember the lines. Their vibrant personalities clash; Clark vehemently blames his partner for breaking up the act and forcefully retiring them both from show business, while Lewis is cold and fastidious, convinced he made the right decision, if only his former partner could accept it.
While there are comedic moments, such as a painfully drawn out argument over how to arrange the furniture during a rehearsal, director Ron Nash has chosen a more dramatic angle on the play, concentrating on the tempestuous team and strained relationship of Clark with his nephew, Ben, who is moved to tears when he finally connects with his uncle in the final act. Nash is unafraid of silence, encouraging natural pauses that build tension and creating realistic characters who are awkward, irritated, and somehow pressing on while caught in a situation they would rather avoid.
Grey Wolf as the curmudgeonly Willie Clark is the grandfather you love, but are equally relieved to leave behind. He portrays the older actor with a playful spirit beneath the bitterness, which comes out in a cheerful dance during an advertising jingle, while maintaining a character whose health is failing, holding on through force of will. Richard Kerrigan is the every man as Ben Silverman, the nephew who refuses to give up on his feisty relative. Their scenes of talking at cross purposes and not listening properly are all too accurate of conversations within a family. Michael Walraven’s Al Lewis is debonair with an air of suspicion, carefully accurate in details—brushing off a chair before sitting, or holding the grimy telephone well away from his pristine suit jacket.
During the play, a vintage Vaudeville act is reproduced, complete with over-the-top props, groan worthy one-liners, and a sexy nurse whose job is to jiggle about on stage and bat her eyes, which strains a modern audience. Christina Jaqua’s alternate ego, the Registered Nurse, restores the depiction of women with an irreverent character who can match wits with Clark’s attempts at humor, and brazenly eats her way through his chocolate.
The Sunshine Boys depicts the misery of a faded career, the danger of ignoring age and circumstances rather than accepting that life is changing, and the power of reconciliation, even if it isn’t perfect. Marin Onstage has a contemplative, grittier staging of the play than the usual bantering comedy, which allows the depth of Lewis and Clark’s story to be revealed in a different way. The intimate Belrose Theater is well adapted for this type of production, which feels like being inside Clark’s tiny, worn hotel room as part of the action.