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The Sunshine Boys
by Neil Simon
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
October 15, 2015

Peter Mayer, John Contini Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Peter Mayer, John Contini
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Vaudeville is a matter of history for most people nowadays, remembered mostly for its influence on the development of entertainment and comedy performance. Once upon a time, though, Vaudeville was at the heart of the entertainment industry, and its performers were well-known stars, many of whom later found success in movies and television. But as big as it was in its heyday, Vaudeville’s popularity eventually died out, its performers grew older, and audiences’ memories faded. For the two aging vaudevillians at the center of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, the memories of their more successful days are bittersweet. Now being presented in a well-cast production at New Jewish Theatre, The Sunshine Boys is a sometimes overly long, but still insightful look at the life of two performers who may not like each other very much, but with whom, for better or for worse, they will always be associated.

That “for better or worse” phrasing calls to mind a marriage, and in a way former stage partners Willie Clark (John Contini) and Al Lewis (Peter Mayer) act like an acrimonious divorced couple. They are linked by a shared past and common public association, but they also harbor years of bitter resentment. It’s a wonder that these two actually managed to work together for over 40 years. The story centers mostly on Willie, who lives in a shabby old hotel room (reduced from what once was a suite), and spends his days watching TV, complaining about various issues to the management, reading Variety and hoping to get jobs acting in commercials. When his longsuffering nephew, Ben (Jared Sanz-Agero), who is also Willie’s agent, brings a network TV job to Willie’s attention, that’s when the volatile action really begins. The job requires a reunion with Al, whom Willie hasn’t seen in years, and a revival of one of their best known acts, a sketch about a a doctor. A somewhat disastrous rehearsal in Willie’s apartment doesn’t bode well for this collaboration, but the TV appearance continues as planned until an unexpected crisis disrupts Willie’s life even further.

The play is surprisingly slow-moving for a Neil Simon comedy, and it takes a while for the story to really start moving. The first act is mostly Willie complaining to Ben about his life, and after Al shows up, it’s almost nonstop bickering. There are some great comic moments, and a good look at a largely forgotten area of the showbiz world, but it’s a little difficult to sympathize considering Willie is just so insufferable for much of the play. Veteran actor Contini, who took over this role on very short notice, does an admirable job of bringing out a degree of charm in the cantankerous old comedian, which is a feat considering the script makes him so difficult to like. The show’s best moments are when Contini is sharing the stage with Sanz-Agero, who is an effective “every man” figure as Ben, and with Mayer as the curmudgeonly but less caustic Al, who serves as a good foil for the more combative Willie. The recreation of the comic sketch is funny, as well, and there’s great support from the ensemble including Leo B Ramsey as a TV production assistant, Bob Harvey as a patient and Julie Crump as a patient and nurse in the doctor sketch, and Fannie Belle-Lebby as a real home health nurse who appears late in the play.

Technically, the show lives up to New Jewish Theatre’s already excellent reputation. Margery and Peter Spack’s incredibly detailed set appropriately suggests the rundown, cluttered hotel room where Willie spends his life. There’s also a good recreation of an early 1970’s TV set, with excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan and sound by Robin Weatherall. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and props by Margery Spack help to vividly illustrate this world of an aging vaudevillian, with Willie’s old costume trunk as a key element in the story.

Overall, while the script does drag in places and takes a while to get going, The Sunshine Boys is a funny and occasionally poignant portrayal of aging comedians struggling to restore a relationship that they’re not sure they want to restore. The importance of family and friendship ties is also emphasized in this classic comedy by one of America’s best-known playwrights. As staged at NJT with its excellent production values and strong cast, The Sunshine Boys is well worth seeing.

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewis Theatre

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewis Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Sunshine Boys at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until November 1, 2015.

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