FAIRBANKS - Celebrity reunions, especially among musical groups, are somewhat commonplace these days. But what happens when two aging comedians despise each other despite a 43year-long career try to revive their most famous skit one last time?
That’s the premise behind Neil Simon’s play, “The Sunshine Boys,” running at the Riverside Theatre the next three weekends.
The play opens in a rundown apartment, a former glorious hotel suite, where former vaudevillian star Willie Clark now lives. It’s 1972 and CBS wants Clark and former partner Al Lewis to reunite for a “History of Comedy” retrospective.
Begrudgingly Clark (Phil Osborn) receives Lewis (Jon Bowne) while Clark’s nephew Ben (Heath Robertson) intercedes in an effort to convince the pair to revive their famous skit.
What follows is a series of recollections, miseries and laughs as the pair come to terms with what’s been asked of them. While the play is a comedy, there is also a note of sadness and anger that drifts through the setting and dialogue as the pair struggle to talk and even look at each other. The pair’s distaste for each other was so great that they never spoke off stage during the final year of their performances. And, the split was not amiable, with Lewis breaking up the act against Clark’s wishes.
Director Shirley Hughes explained that “The Sunshine Boys” ushered in the idea of “serious comedy,” but that the writing was directly related to a troubling period in Simon’s life when his success was at its peak, yet his wife was dying from cancer.
“It’s one of the more layered Neil Simon comedies.
It goes a little deeper than many of his comedies,” she said. “Before this, most of Simon’s plays were on the surface. Funny, but they didn’t go deeper than skin deep. This one goes a little deeper, and I think his brain was in a darker place. He was pressured to be funny, but it was a dark time in his life. Not that this play is dark, but it’s got more human levels to it.” Hughes said these elements have allowed the characters to open up more, but not without some challenges, namely understanding the vaudevillian
approach. “It’s been a hard style to get them to physicalize,” she explained. “Back in vaudeville days there wasn’t amplification, and if you wanted to get your audience to hear you the punchline had to be right out front. To get actors to not look at each other when they talk to each other is a very hard thing to do. It takes a while to stop feeling the need to do that. That face just has to be out there when they deliver that punchline and God knows it’s all about the punchline.”
But, she added of Osborn and Bowne. “It’s hard to say in this duo who’s the straight man and who’s the punch man because they are both so funny.”
It’s during the second act that the pair finally perform “The Doctor Is In,” their famous piece. It’s clear to see the pair enjoy the reunion, despite the obvious animosities and shenanigans that take place during the “broadcast.” As for the laughs, Hughes cautioned there will possibly be even more groans because of the humor’s age.
“A lot of the audience reaction during the doctor sketch is going to be less laughing and more groaning,” she said with a laugh of her own. “The sophistication of humor today is higher now than it was in the 1920s, so some of the laughs back then are going to be groaners today. But it’s still very, very funny.”
Contact features editor Glenn BurnSilver at 459-7510.
IF YOU GO
What: The Sunshine Boys
When: 8:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 21
Where: Riverfront Theatre. 1852 Second Ave.
Tickets: $20, $18 seniors (65+), military and students, $14 13-18 years old, box office opens one hour prior to curtain time for walk-up sales