Neil Simon‘s THE SUNSHINE BOYS now playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre about the reunion of a pair of elderly vaudeville comedians still has a few laughs but seems to have lost its shine.
11 years before the play opened Al (James Sutorius) announced to his comedic partner Willie (Lenny Wolpe) that he was retiring and will no longer be performing and Willie is still angry about it. Willie never wanted to retire, but he found that it was harder to find work as a solo act, when he was once part of the defining comedic duo of the golden era of vaudeville.
When Willie’s nephew and agent Ben (Bryan Banville) has an opportunity for a television special on comedy, but it would require them to reunite. Willie is hesitant to work with Al again, listing many complaints about how difficult it was to work with Al over the course of their careers.
When Al arrives it turns out that he is as apprehensive about working with Willie as Willie is about working with him. They poke at each other, bicker over lines, and challenge the validity of each other’s memories. Their banter is delightful, but it takes a long time into the first act to get there.
Wolpe gets the laughs as the curmudgeonly comic Willie, who seems to battle everything; opening his front door, keeping the television on, even arguing with his nephew Ben over the day of the week he should visit.
Sutorius as Al is softer, with a talent for a passive aggressive twist when it suits the character. His poker-faced performance is the perfect foil to Wolpe’s fiery and antagonistic Willie.
Banville is likeable as the straight man nephew to Willie, who seems to be made up of nothing but comedic punchlines.
The play doesn’t dig very deep for any character motivations, or even do more than a gloss over the comedic duos breakup. This leaves the audience in a place of feeling less than sympathetic towards them as their angry bickering starts to feel repetitive.
It’s to be expected in a show about vaudeville to make a few jokes from the era that may be funny but not necessarily have aged well, and that’s definitely the case here. The skit “The Doctor Will See You Now” is a misogynistic, comedic mish mash of repetition, and lecherous humor. The lack of any character depth for Willie and Al only make this skit that much more painful to watch; why are we rooting for these guys to have this comeback?
This talented cast works hard but never really rises above the material. Neil Simon may be the king of punchlines and some really touching dramatic comedies, unfortunately THE SUNSHINE BOYS proves that sometimes you need more character development and less punchline to make a comedy work.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS is playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 24th. For ticket and show time information go to www.northcoastrep.org