Neil Simon’s ‘Sunshine Boys’ in seasoned hands at North Coast Repertory Theatre
In Neil Simon’s classic comedy “The Sunshine Boys,” a long-retired vaudeville duo agree to set aside their decades-long animosity to re-team for one last performance. But some old habits die hard.
The 1972 comedy gets a funny and spirited workout at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, which is the ideal venue for the play. It presents Simon’s works more than any other local professional theater and its longtime artistic director, David Ellenstein, has long provided senior actors — like Simon’s 70-something vaudevillians — the chance to show audiences that they’ve still got it.
Seasoned actors Lenny Wolpe and James Sutorius certainly do have “it” as the bitterly divided team once known as “Lewis & Clark.” Wolpe stars as Willie Clark, who is still seething 11 years after his stage partner of 43 years, Al Lewis, quit to become a stock broker. They never spoke again, despite repeated efforts to heal the wound by the proud but more gentle-natured Al, played by Sutorius.
As the play opens in the early 1970s, Willie is barely getting by in a tiny, decrepit New York apartment that his nephew, theater agent Ben Silverman (Bryan Banville), regularly stocks with groceries and cigars. Willie wants to keep acting, but his memory is fading and jobs are hard to come by until Ben talks Willie and Al into reprising a famous Lewis & Clark vaudeville skit for a CBS documentary on the history of comedy.
Some of the humor has grown creaky with age, including some ethnic references and the sexist leering in the Lewis & Clark TV skit. But it’s still a very funny play, the characters are well-developed and the love-hate relationships at the core ring true. Jeffrey B. Moss directed the smoothly paced and well-rehearsed production, which was recently extended by a week due to strong ticket sales.
Wolpe, a Broadway veteran, steals the show as the cantankerous Willie. He’s believably irascible and forgetful, and not afraid to show his character’s rough edges. And his background in musical theater gives him a rhythmic sense of comic timing that shines in the TV comedy skit.
Sutorius, who won a Craig Noel Award for his lead performance in last year’s “The Father” at North Coast Rep, layers more complex emotions into his character. Al is at times eccentric and prideful while also generous, thoughtful and bewildered by Willie’s rage.
Banville co-stars as Ben, Willie’s exasperated nephew and agent. A good physical comedian himself, Banville plays Ben as a young man pushed to the brink by his demanding and bitter uncle. Ben’s career is riding on the success of the TV skit, so there’s more than just family pride at stake.
Filling out the cast in smaller roles are John Tessmer, Phillip Korth, Samantha Roper and Portia Gregory. Scenic designer Marty Burnett has created an apartment so realistic you could live in it. Matt Novotny designed lighting, Elisa Benzoni designed costumes and Aaron Rumley designed sound.
Like most good vaudeville skits, “The Sunshine Boys” has a surprise payoff at the end. With seasoned pros onstage and off, the production sparkles.
• IF YOU GO: “The Sunshine Boys” runs through Nov. 24, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach. Tickets: $46-$57 (senior, military and student discounts). (858) 481-1055. northcoastrep.org
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune