Encore Michigan

Neil Simon’s ‘Sunshine Boys” at Great Escape

Review September 19, 2017 Marin Heinritz

MARSHALL, Mich.–Celebrated American playwright Neil Simon is known best for his comedy writing: shot through with natural dialogue, rapid-fire jokes, and punchline zingers, his plays are often built around quick-paced two-character scenes, the success of which is, as they rightfully say, all in the timing.

Herein lies the central problem in Great Escape Stage Company’s production of The Sunshine Boys, the 1972 Broadway hit that was adapted into an Oscar-winning 1975 film, about an estranged Vaudeville duo who reunite in their golden years for a one-off television comedy tribute show.

Though Director Nate Cox brings together capable actors who effectively capture the characters physically, the vast majority of the punchlines never quite land in this two-act, two-hour show that should have run closer to 90 minutes with intermission.

Al Lewis and Willie Clark have known each other for 43 years, haven’t spoken in 12 years, and haven’t seen each other in 11 years. When Clark’s nephew cum agent proposes the reunion, Clark, practically a shut-in who spends his days wearing pajamas while reading Variety and watching TV in his cold water flat, proudly resists reconnecting with the man who caused the end of his career by leaving their act, but then relents.

Max Hardy is a beautifully curmudgeonly Clark, and he plays the sharp, stubborn, crotchety old man’s physical comedy for laughs and milks the situational comedy for what it’s worth–an unplugged television, a stuck door lock, and noisy sips of tea among the gags. He’s convincingly both the showman who lives for every punchline (even if it doesn’t land) and the heart attack waiting to happen the character needs to be.

Tom Cummins provides an appropriate counterpoint as a more even-tempered
and forgetful Lewis. His scenes with Hardy, though slower than they need to be, clearly communicate the time and place with their Yiddish inflected English and the complexity of their relationship as well as both the comedy and tragedy of aging. And they do pick up the tempo for the apex scene in which they re-create their most famous Doctor-Patient vaudeville sketch.

The ethos of vaudeville is central to this show, and Great Escape helps provide this necessary context by staging “A Tickle of Burlesque” a one-hour warm-up act compiled and directed by Randy Lake that feels straight out of the 1970s musical revue “Sugar Babies,” a fast-paced and funny tribute to the old burlesque tradition. It’s full of off-color humor, misogynistic sexual innuendo, near nudity, and a grand patriotic finale complete with sparklers and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

The four men and four women in the cast are each their own sight gag: the
robotic blond bombshell; a corpse in pin stripes; a corpulent Betty Paige/Amy Winehouse mashup; a couple of old hookers in fringe; a hipster nerd; and a jolly, bug-eyed, pot-bellied, lascivious ball of energy. They make the audience groan and laugh—and effectively play with tempo, which is exactly what the production needs.

The tension between fast and slow and between what is and what was is where the drama and comedy emerge. “A Tickle of Burlesque” achieves this more effectively than “The Sunshine Boys.”

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