FAIRBANKS - “Shtick” is one my favorite theatrical expressions. Not only do I love the word’s sound, but also its wide ranging usage. It comes from Yiddish and at least one of its meanings refers to a comedic signature. Think of Groucho Marx’s wagging eyebrows, or Jack Benny’s silent violin.
Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” is in part a celebration of the golden age of vaudeville and the performers who honed their material before live audiences night after night. Anyone familiar with Simon’s work knows his facility with words and building comic conflict with interesting characters. Language is his shtick and never more so than in “The Sunshine Boys.” One can become giddy by the verbal banter. It’s like watching an extended volley in a tennis match. But, as the director of Fairbanks Drama Association’s current production Shirley Hughes notes, there are darker themes below the play’s laughs.
The boys of the title are, in fact, a couple of elderly comedians who trod the boards for more than 40 years as the successful duo “Lewis and Clark: the Sunshine Boys.” Now, however, the sun has set on their careers and relationship. Like ex-spouses in a messy divorce, they aren’t even on speaking terms.
Phil Osborn does a wonderful job portraying Willie Clark, the central character. Willie is still bitter about the duo’s split and the dive his career took as a result. Osborn tucks into the play’s jokes with verve and captures Willie’s petulance and spleen. Not only is his character not going quietly into his twilight years, he’s going to make everyone else miserable along the way.
For his part, Jon Bowne turns in a decidedly understated performance as Willie’s erstwhile partner, Al Lewis. I couldn’t tell whether Bowne was being tentative or just choosing to play against Osborn’s high energy, but it wasn’t until the two characters launched into their old vaudeville routine that I began to feel the dynamics click between Osborn and Bowne and see why Lewis and Clark were supposed to be comedy legends.
On the other hand, Heath Robertson as Willie’s nephew, Ben Silverman, matched Osborn in tone and energy. The result produced the production’s most engaging dialogues. Not only is Ben Willie’s nephew but also his agent. Every word, every expression in their exchanges is charged at different emotional levels. Robertson solidly depicts the trials of coping with an aging relative who is a royal pain, while at the same time convincing us he has a vested interest in seeing the famed Lewis and Clark reunited for one last paying gig. Robertson also deserves credit for having to wear some of the ugliest sports jackets ever conceived. His wardrobe continually threatened to upstage him.
Undoubtedly this sense of visual playfulness comes in part from director Hughes’ familiarity with the material She’s directed “The Sunshine Boys” before and her affection for the play shows in every scene.
She’s aided by some technical talent. I’ve mentioned costumer Stephanie Stowman’s, if not quite inspired at least arresting, taste in sports jackets; but there are other nice wardrobe touches as well. Designer and scenic painter Melinda Mattson has created a flexible set that captures the seedy nature of Willie’s apartment. And there are some audio elements, including Steve Mitchell’s off-stage television announcements, which contribute to the play’s atmosphere of faded glories.
As I watched “The Sunshine Boys” I couldn’t help thinking of a line about a different Willy. In “Death of a Salesman” Willy Loman’s wife says, “Attention must be paid to such a man.” Neil Simon would probably agree, but he might change the line to read, “Attention must be paid to such a man, or at least his shtick.” Fairbanks Drama Association’s production allows us that chance.
“The Sunshine Boys” continues at the Riverfront Theatre with performances at 8:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 21.
Robert Hannon has been involved with Fairbanks theater for more than two decades. He is a frequent theater reviewer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.