Arts & Events

Theater Review: Unusual Production of Neil Simon's 'The Sunshine Boys'

Friday April 07, 2017 - 06:17:00 PM

" ... pickle is funny; tomato is not funny!"

So the obsessive litany of the old vaudevillean straight man, principal character in Neil Simon's 'The Sunshine Boys,' whose author's start in showbiz as a gagman and TV and radio scriptwriter may've begun with just such systems of accounting.

'Sunshine Boys' hit Broadway in 1972, riding on Simon's great comic successes of the 60s, was made into a movie with Simon staple Walter Matthau and George Burns (jumpstarting Burns'career) in '75--and just a decade before the more reflective second wave of Simon's own career kicked in, in earnest, with 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' in the mid-80s.

'Sunshine Boys' is already different in kind from the doorslammer farces Simon rode to fame on, and somehow oblique to the nostalgia for old showbiz and its personae that could be expected.

A smart, inquisitive production of this curiosity of Simominana--and of the American stage, in every sense--is onstage now at the old Belrose Theatre, a cabaret-style place with chairs and tables and drinks, in San rafael, across from the old public library on Fifth Avenue, appropriately enough, produced by Gary Gonser for marin Onstage, in residence there, and marvellously directed by Ron Nash, an old pro himself, who also plays the part of a TV production man midway through the story. 

As the former straight man of the fabled vaudeville comedy team of Lewis & Clark, Wille Clark (played marvellously by Grey Wolf) is still plugging away in showbiz--or would like us to think so. As his harried TV exec nephew (a spot-on portrayal by Richard Kerrigan) tries to explain to a deaf ear, Willie's become too ingrown, too insistent on his own predilections and preconditions, preconditions often taking on a more medical, even psychiatric meaning. His true theater is his old hotel room, once a suite when successful, where he stews in his own juices under the lid of a stream of wise cracks, nursing his hatred for his old colleague, comic Al Lewis--who he still genuinely admires as the geatest, the funniest ... but can't get over what he recalls as a mountain of little indignities (spitting in his face onstage while talking, poking a finger in his chest, bruising him, all part of their endlessly repeated signature routines), the way Al suddenly up and retired without warning ... or maybe just the familiarity, the je ne sais quoi, that breeds contempt: 

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell, 

The reason why, I cannot tell, 

But this I know & know full well-- 

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell. 

Thus the old, sardonic nursery rhyme, dating back to the 17th century, as good an explanation or analysis as any. 

Wille has become a grotesque, and this's played to the hllt by Grey Wolf as the centerpiece of this production. Behind that grotesquery of an old comedy pro--in the business Nash quotes a character in his notes sayiing it's the most aggravating in the world--is the banal world of older people rotting in urban furnished rooms with their memories, prey to out-of-control mannerisms in their isolation. 

Al Lewis has been mostly spared this fate, living in the far fields of Jersey with relatives, even children in the house. But he's prey to his old partner's delusions when the two are tapped to reprise their act for a TV special on the history of the biz. Hanging on one word to open their sketch, which Clark insists on changing, they descend into squabbling and a not-so-funny, objectively viewed (but who's being objective?) kind of slapstick ... 

In the preliminaries for the sketch is a perfect gem--Grey Wolf as the manic Willie as a manic doctor in his office, tantalized by a boffo, buxom nurse, played with rhythmic aplomb by Christina Jaqua (who turns o a dime to play a genuine nurse caring for--and facing down--the acerbic Wille later on), a perfect and perfectly delirious reenactment of an old-style vaudeville burlesque. 

Michael Walraven plays Al Lewis with sensitivity, laboring valiantly as the "funniest man in the business" in the bloodshot eyes of his old partner, but not represented by the playwright as so funny onstage. In this cockeyed nsotalgia show, the starightman's funnier than the comic. Was this part of Simon's dramaturgy? Has the old funnyman just gone tame? 

It's an unusually good night of straight--or starightman's--comic theater, worth the drive over one bridge or another, the pleasure of sitting back in the Belrose and watching a charged-up cast go at a kind of anatomy of comedy--and the human spirit. 

Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 & 8, Belrose Theatre, 1415-5th Avenue (between D & E Streets), San Rafael. $24 general, $21 seniors & students, $12 children. or (415) 448-6152