From court jesters centuries ago to comedy clubs today, funny people have been heralded in show business. In an amusing “The Sunshine Boys,” New Jewish Theatre gives us a laugh-out-loud glimpse of the heyday of vaudeville through the zesty performances of two old pros, and the zingy words of Neil Simon.
Before he was a legendary playwright, Simon wrote sketch TV with the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in the golden days. “The Sunshine Boys” is his tribute to such entertainers, now relics of the past.
His trademark one-liners are handled with aplomb by iron man John Contini, who subbed for an ill cast member and learned the part in five days. Contini is colorful as the cantankerous Willie Clark, who remains bitter that former partner Al Lewis quit the act, thus retiring the popular comedy team after 47 years.
The play takes place in 1972. Living in a shabby, memorabilia-lined residential hotel, Clark putters around in pajamas, his only visitor his nephew Ben, who also happens to be his agent. A sturdy Jared Sanz-Agero projects the right mix of exasperation and caring as Ben.
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The real revelation here, however, is Peter Mayer as the quieter, seemingly more reasonable Al Lewis, now living with his daughter. George Burns won an Oscar for playing the part in the 1975 film. Mayer’s comedic timing and his droll delivery of quips and one-liners are marvelous to behold. Previously, I had only seen Mayer in intense dramatic roles.
The two very gifted actors, who have graced St. Louis stages for decades, bring out the best in each other. They are fun to watch as the feuding duo.
Ben brings Uncle Willie an offer to reunite with Lewis for a TV special, reprising their famous doctor sketch. That forces the pair to rehearse, and this is where the play really soars. One of the funniest scenes is watching the two men rearrange furniture to create their sketch set.
Without one iota of political correctness, the sketch is a throwback to a bawdy burlesque and vaudeville era. The network rehearsal presents Julia Crump as the va-va-voom Sketch Nurse, Bob Harvey as the patient, and Leo B. Ramsey as a stage tech in small but solid roles.
Fannie Belle-Lebby is sassy and wise in a lively turn as Willie’s visiting nurse.
Director Finlayson emphasizes the strengths of his cast while keeping the action brisk. There isn’t a line thrown away or gesture wasted.
The lived-in quality of the hotel room and the network’s sketch set are strong examples of the meticulous work by scenic designers Margery and Peter Spack. Their decorative work is remarkably comprehensive, and their style so distinct that I know immediately they worked on the set.
“The Sunshine Boys” is a love letter to a bygone era, and the New Jewish Theatre production is an endearing, heartfelt salute to those who entertain us. Making us laugh is hard but rewarding work.
“The Sunshine Boys”
- Who: New Jewish Theatre
- When: through Nov. 1
- Where: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis
- Tickets: www.newjewishtheatre.org, 314-442-3283