The Sunshine Boys at Scripps Ranch Theatre
  • The Sunshine Boys at Scripps Ranch Theatre
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The Sunshine Boys

Lewis and Clark were trailblazers — the comedy team, that is, of Al Lewis and Willie Clark. Vaudeville headliners back in the 1930s, they were together 43 years and “retired” 11 years ago.

Why the “Sunshine Boys” retired is the thrust of Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy.

It wasn’t amicable. In fact, if you ask Willie, now holed up like a hermit, it was a divorce years overdue. The grounds: mental cruelty. “As an actor no one could touch him,” says Willie, “as a human being, no one wanted to touch him.”

The same, we soon learn, holds true for Willie. Except for nephew Ben, a theatrical agent who visits him every Wednesday, Willie’s so shut in he has multiple locks on his door. His idea of a good time is reading Variety to see who died.

Jean-Paul Sartre said “hell is other people.” For a lifelong trouper like Willie, not being able to work — to exercise his only joy — turns his cramped Manhattan studio into a living hell.

So when CBS decides to do a 90-minute tribute to the greats of comedy, Willie gets conflicting jolts: he can work, finally; but with the man he vowed never to speak to again.

Imagine Oscar Madison and Felix Unger living together for four decades. Sunshine Boys is the Odd Couple times 40. Willie and Al will not go gently to that CBS special.

The first act of Scripps Ranch Theatre’s opening night could have gone more swiftly. The stars of the play are old men, but once this has been established, the pace should pick up, as should lighter deliveries.

At first, Phil Johnson pushed Willie’s barbed manner more than necessary. But in the end — no mean feat — Johnson made the long-suffering man sympathetic, even touching.

Eric Poppick’s sharp timing brought Al Lewis (the Felix Unger-like character) to life. Once they get rolling, his exchanges with Johnson crackle.

A walking tribute to early-seventies styles — sideburns and flare-pants and those gaudy colors (excellent costumes by Mary Larson, including Willie’s eye-offending, drab-green pajamas with orange-ish stripes) — Kevin Hafso-Koppman turns in yet another solid performance as Willie’s (equally) long-suffering nephew Ben.

As does the ever-versatile Yolanda Franklin. She’s a caregiver who’s had it up to Here, and a nurse giving a guided tour of her physical endowments. Makes one wonder: is Simon echoing vaudeville’s sexism? Or, in a play mostly about men, is he throwing a cookie to the male chauvinists in the house?

Andy Scrimger’s set merits special mention. It is rich in detail, from old photographs, browning like bacon, on the walls, to the cheap furnishings, and the grim, lived-in look. Everything is old. But, and here’s the art, it’s uniformly old. Great work!


Footnotes:

  • 1.) Simon based Lewis and Clark, in large measure, on the legendary comedy team of (Joe) Smith and (Charlie) Dale, who worked together for 70 years. Sunshine Boys replicates their most famous sketch: “Dr. Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient,” which has the immortal exchange: Smith: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” Dale: “Then don’t to it.”
  • 2.) MGM originally wanted Jack Benny to play Willie (to Walter Matthau’s Al) for their movie version of Sunshine Boys. Benny was 80. Asked how he and Matthau, age 54, could look like men in their 70s, Benny replied: “Simple. They’ll just make us both look older.” Benny died before filming began.
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