Neil Simon is one of those rare playwrights whose comedic skills are almost impossible to kill, no matter into whose hands his scripts fall. His plays have been produced by high-schoolers, community theater amateurs and even some misguided hotshot Hollywood types, with wildly varying degrees of skill and sensibility. But no matter who undertakes the best of Simon's work, the strength of the plays' structure, their wonderfully imagined characters and the humor that is part of the scripts' DNA still manages to work its way through whatever obstacles are thrown in the way.
The man knew how to write a script.
So imagine what Simon's work in the hands of professionals can deliver. Actually, you don't have to imagine. You can march down to the Temple of Music and Art, where the Arizona Theatre Company is staging Simon's The Sunshine Boys and enjoy the smart, snappy and sometimes sweet story of two aging ex-vaudevillians, on the outs for 12 years, who are attempting to put together an old routine for a television special on the history of comedy in America. It's a delight.
ATC's artistic director David Ira Goldstein has chosen a fine example of Simon's humor-with-heart, and lets a fine cast revel in some deceptively simple storytelling.
Al Lewis (David Green) and Willie Clark (Peter Van Norden) were partners in goofy entertainment for 43 years. One day, without any kind of prelude to his intentions, Lewis announced he was leaving. He was tired and wanted to do something else. This bewildered, baffled and bothered to the extreme partner Clark, who has since avoided all contact with Lewis. When you're a performer, you just don't stop being a performer. It's a way of life. It's in the blood. And it's what you've done for decades in partnership with another. So Clark has tried to go it alone in a world where entertainment has evolved and he has aged. Now, in 1972, he's fumbling around in a dreary apartment in his pajamas, waiting for Ben Silverman, (Bob Sorenson), his nephew and agent, to make his weekly visit bearing cans of soup and the new issue of Variety. Willie blames his nephew for not getting him any work, but he can't even remember how to unlock the door to let his nephew in, no less remember lines.
But CBS is doing a special and Ben orchestrates an opportunity for his uncle to tread the boards again—but only if he will reunite with Lewis.
Clark launches into a tirade in which he first declares he will absolutely not do it, then segues into "I'm against it," then to "I'll do it, but I'm against it."
So begins the process of reuniting the two, attempting to re-create the sketch, and then taking it to the CBS studio. It's a process that yields an abundance of laugh-out-loud humor.
The laughs are built into the script, but in the hands of Van Norden and Green, they come alive and leap into our laps. And the laughs seem effortlessly produced, a result of these two having a loving understanding of their characters and respect for Simon's work. One of the hallmarks of Simon's skills is creating characters from whom humor develops organically. Lesser actors may deliver funny lines and get laughs, but skilled actors don't just deliver lines. They embody a character, and it is the character that makes us laugh, not merely a humorous situation or a calculated joke—although Simon certainly contributes admirably in that dimension as well.
Van Norden and Green are an odd couple, for sure. Van Norden's Clark is full of piss and vinegar; Green's Lewis is tailored, reserved and willing to give a little—just a little. How they lasted for 43 years is miraculous. It's this difference in their essential natures, of course, that makes their interactions ripe for comedy. In addition, these guys are considerably advanced in their years, making any change in behavior highly improbable.
Goldstein, Van Norden and Green discover some great bits—appropriate because Lewis and Clark were vaudevillians, after all—such as the hysterical choreography of the two trying to set up some rehearsal props. It's reminiscent of Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, but with a table, two chairs and a floor lamp.
This is Clark's story, primarily, and one of the great triumphs of Van Norden's Willie is that he manages to find a fresh take on what some might characterize as a curmudgeon. He's been unafraid of discovering and embracing Clark's vulnerability, and he blends it with his cantankerous ways throughout, so that we get a multidimensional character instead of a stock one. We get a very credible Lewis from Green as well, and although he seems the much more reasonable one, we can see that even with his mild manner he is not without qualities that would irritate and provoke.
Jon Lutyens, Caitlin Stegemoller and Lillie Richardson have small supporting roles that they execute well enough, and Sorenson, a familiar face on ATC's stage, is an appropriately understated catalyst for the story (although his wig should be caged, taken to the desert and released back into the wild.) Yoon Bae's set gives us a dingy apartment with walls covered in framed head shots, and a peek at a kitchen that hasn't been cleaned in years. And Kish Finnegan's costumes serve as an appropriate window into the far-out fashions of the '70s without distracting from the story.
Like an old married couple who make each other crazy but are nonetheless bound forever, the team of Lewis and Clark reminds us that no matter our differences, our grudges and our desires for revenge, we all end up in the same place. So, Simon says between the lines, we probably should learn to play well with others.