Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sunshine Boys

An attempt at a nostalgic visit: THE SUNSHINE BOYS at Porthouse

Neil Simon has held the title of “the crown prince of theatrical comedy” for many years. He is a Tony and Emmy award winner. He holds the distinction of having four shows playing on Broadway at the same time during the 1966 Broadway season: SWEET CHARITY, THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL, THE ODD COUPLE, and Barefoot in the Park.

Simon is the author of both comedies and musicals including CHAPTER TWO, THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG, I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, BILOXI BLUES, BROADWAY BOUND, THE GOODBYE GIRL, and LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR. In general, his strongest works are those that recount his personal life.

THE SUNSHINE BOYS, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, not only has a long theatre life, but was made into a film and television show.

The play concerns a fictional vaudevillian team known as Lewis and Clark, a duo that played the circuit for forty-odd years. Their working relationship came to an end when Lewis decided that vaudeville was dying, the cantankerous Clark was driving him crazy, and “enough was enough.” After Lewis’s retirement, Clark tried to continue on his own, but old age, forgetfulness, and his stubbornness got in his way.

In the play we find Willy Clark living alone in a Manhattan hotel apartment, constantly reading Variety for show biz news, observing the deaths of his contemporary performers, and driving his agent-nephew crazy. When The Ed Sullivan television show wants to do a special about the history of comedy, they invite Lewis and Clark to headline. Bringing the duo together, as can be expected, results in conflicts and laughs.

Simon supposedly used the real vaudeville team of Smith and Dale as the basis for the duo in the play. But, unlike Lewis and Clark, Smith and Dale were inseparable lifelong friends. So he looked to another team, Gallagher and Shean, who were noted for their argumentative style during their onstage performances for the conflicting underbelly.

THE SUNSHINE BOYS opened on Broadway on December 18, 1972 and ran for 538 performances. The original cast included Sam Levene as Lewis and Jack Albertson as Clark.

For THE SUNSHINE BOYS to work, the actors must be able to duplicate the comic timing of the Jewish entertainers of vaudeville days, who honed their skills by doing the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskill mountains. There is a cadence to Yiddish speaking that translates into the outlandish sounds and material developed by these English speaking entertainers. Without that tonation, pausing, and sound pacing, the material falls flat. It is very difficult to do. It takes a Groucho Marks, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Weber and Fields to make the material work.

Though they try hard, George Roth (Willie Clark) and Marc Moritz (Al Lewis) just don’t get the timing or the sound right. The famous “The Doctor is In” routine fell flat. As someone sitting behind me said at the conclusion of that section of the production, “Was that supposed to be funny?” Unfortunately, at least on preview night, it wasn’t.

Roth seems more comfortable with the material than Moritz. But, Roth screams his way through much of the action, forgetting sometimes to texture and build up to emotional climaxes. But, he at least tries to develop the cadence in the skit and show the motivations of the character.

Moritz underplays the entire exercise to the point of near boredom, giving a tuna and white bread read to the role, rather than a corned beef on rye interpretation.

Director Rohn Thomas needed to work with the duo on the needed variance of emotions and getting the right comic vaudeville timing. He should have heeded the vaudeville biz edict, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

The script may have outlived its lifetime. Younger audiences, unfamiliar with the whole Borscht Belt era and days of vaudeville, will be lost in the references and probably not identify with the humor and ego in-fighting of the era. This is a script that needs a New York audience of the mid-nineteen hundreds to appreciate the idea completely.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: THE SUNSHINE BOYS is a Neil Simon show that gets an acceptable, but not a commanding performance at Porthouse Theatre. Some might enjoy the old-time humor.