Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” premiered on Broadway in 1972 with Jack Albertson as cantankerous former vaudeville star Willie Clark and Sam Levene as his passive-aggressive ex-partner, Al Lewis. It has subsequently been produced many more times on stage and on film, most famously when Herbert Ross directed a feature film of it in 1975 with Walter Matthau as Willie and George Burns as Al. (Burns, a former vaudevillian himself, won an Oscar for his performance.)
In the current production that the Centenary Stage Company is presenting at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 1, Carl Wallnau and David Edwards play Willie and Al, respectively, and sometimes seem to be channelling Matthau and Burns. Wallnau’s enraged bellow, at times, bears a striking resemblance to Matthau’s, and Edwards says some of his lines with the same sense of bemused befuddlement that Burns brought to the role.
Directed by Keith Baker, this is straightforward but dependably amusing version of one of Simon’s best plays — which, though set in the post-vaudeville world, conjures some of the fast-moving, witty, sardonic but also buoyant spirit of vaudeville itself.
At one point, for instance, Willie says he thinks he’s getting green from hepatitis, and is told you don’t get green from hepatitis, you get yellow.
“Maybe I got a very bad case,” he says.
Willie Clark and Al Lewis — known as Lewis & Clark, or The Sunshine Boys — had been vaudeville stars years ago, but always got on each other’s nerves. (Think of what would have happened if Felix and Oscar, from Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” had been forced to be on the road together for decades.) They are now elderly — Clark is still trying to hang on in show-biz with the occasional acting job in a commercial, Lewis lives peacefully with his daughter and her family — but they get the opportunity to reunite to perform in a star-studded TV special on the history of comedy.
The problem is they haven’t spoken to each other since their duo act broke up, 11 years ago, and they kind of hate each other. (Though deep down, they really love each other, too, of course.)
Encouraged by Willie’s long-suffering nephew and agent, Ben (Jason Silverman), they agree to resume their partnership. Willie is hungry for any work he can get; Al wants his grandchildren to have a chance to see him perform.
And so they circle each other, warily, in the first act, while much of the second act is devoted mostly to a rocky rehearsal for the TV show. Some of the magic comes back: Willie and Al seem to become young again as they resurrect the uproarious silliness of one of their most famous skits, where Willie is a doctor and Al is a patient. But the old tensions resurface, and things go spectacularly wrong.
But the Sunshine Boys do, eventually, come to a sort of truce. Simon handles this well, touching on it subtly without getting overly sentimental or suggesting that Willie and Al can ever fully put their problems behind them.
Lending valuable support are Emaline Williams, who makes the most out of a role — the nurse in the doctor skit, who is there, really, only to be leered at by Willie and Al — that was an intentionally ridiculous anachronism even when Simon wrote the play, almost 50 years ago; and Reva Jamison as the no-nonsense real nurse who responds to Willie’s childishness with withering disdain.
The Centenary Stage Company will present “The Sunshine Boys” at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 1. Visit centenarystageco.org.
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