By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

Most theatre audiences acknowledge that playwright Neil Simon was the true and anointed “king of comedy” not only in America but worldwide.  They also realize they’re not likely to see his stripe and genius for comedy that the ‘common folk’ have embraced for 42 years.

Most of his plays were New York centric-written.  But his sharp observant eye and knack of capturing the situations and dialogue of New Yorkers made them maddeningly eccentric, but lovable at the same time, winning the hearts of all urban Americans.  Who can forget the antics of “The Odd Couple”?   Or the zaniest of situations where the toilet flushed upward and “black salads” were unappetizing restaurant first courses that one didn’t just dig into in, “Barefoot in the Park”.  And the list of Simon ‘zingers’ as they came to be called was his hallmark.

His comedy dialogue was sublime and actors couldn’t wait to perform it. He was a true son of New York  whose legacy of being the most successful American comedy playwright ever; deserved the laurels heaped upon him.  He passed in 2018 at the age of 91. The King of comedy is dead.  Long live the future playwright kings and/or queens of comedy who follow. Simon was one of a kind and will be greatly missed . . .  and the beat goes on.

North Coast Repertory Theatre of Solana Beach, CA has enjoyed much success with Simon’s plays over the years.  Their recent “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” production, is among five or six memorable Simon productions that are still vivid in NCRT audience memories, and this audience of one as well.

“The Sunshine Boys”, currently on stage at NCRT is another hilarious crowd pleaser.  Wonderfully directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, it stars James Sutorius, and Lenny Wolpe as Al Lewis and Willie Clark respectfully, as the ‘Sunshine Boys’ with a winning performance from Bryan Banville as Ben Silverman, Willie’s nephew, lawyer, and agent, plus a fine supporting cast of Portia Gregory as the Registered Nurse; Samantha Roper as the TV show skit Nurse; Phillip Korth as Eddie, and John Tessmer as the Patient in the comedy skit.

“The Sunshine Boys”, is a smartly observed comedy with edges of poignancy creeping out from its core center that is insightfully culled from Simon’s exploration of “growing old and grappling with the actor’s bane – that of not being able to get cast in a show because of one’s age. And it’s still an issue in 2019.

The story in short, is set in the 1970’s in New York City, and revolves around two long- time partner/actor performers who have ‘retired’ their Burlesque act of 43 years.  Al Lewis (James Sutorius) decided to retire without consulting his actor partner Willie Clark (Lenny Wolpe) after 43 years of performing their famous “Doctor” skit.  The “retiring of their act” by Al was a one person decision, according to Willie. It’s a betrayal in Willie’s eyes.  As a result the two men have not spoken to each in eleven years. 

Ben, Willie’s agent and nephew, has finally arranged for Willie to perform in a huge CBS TV Special honoring America’s greatest comedy performers of the past fifty years.  Willie is excited by the idea of working again.  For Willie, his life IS performing.  The idea of performing is what has kept him going since the split with Al.  There’s just one hitch; CBS wants the ”old act”.

They want “Lewis and Clark” together as in days of old.  Look, “I’m not doing the show if Al Lewis is involved. Period!” Willie roars at Ben, who then gently explains to Willie.  No Al Lewis.  No hefty CBS TV money contract for doing the old act just one more time.

The beauty of this comedy gem for actors of a certain age, lies not only their experience and talent they bring but also in the  vision of director Moss who seamlessly and intelligently stages Simon’s play; orchestrating the “master class” performances of Wolpe and Sutorius two pros whose exquisite comedy timing is flat-out mesmerizing to watch.

Wolpe shines as the wise-cracking kvetch Willie.  Sutorius delivers a finely judged, nuanced turn as the cool but cautious Al; not knowing what to expect from Willie after eleven years of not speaking to him.  It’s classic Neil Simon. There are echoes of Oscar and Felix from “The Odd couple”, all over again but with a twist.

If truth be known, both are unsure of the meeting and the outcome but both characters secretly still enjoy needling one another. In reality, they’re two grumpy old men who are in need of the negotiating skills that Bryan Banville supplies as lawyer Silverman.  That’s it.   No spoiler alerts here. To learn how this splendid production turns out one has to see the production for one’s self.  How these characters resolve the issues that kept them from reconnecting is the stuff that made Neil Simon world famous. His skill as a comedy playwright was nonpareil. 

The technical credits at NCRT are always first rate. And this production is no exception. The creative team led by director Moss features a colorful, wonderful, Set Design by Marty Burnett that is eye appealing and functional.  Lighting Director Matt Novotny works his magic allowing for the costumes of Elisa Benzoni to be seen and appreciated for their spot-on 1970’s period.

The Sound Design by Aaron Rumley is top drawer, and nicely executed, especially in Wolpe’s scenes in his apartment as he putters around in his pajamas and bathrobe forgetting where things are located, and his inability to open the front door when visitors arrive is priceless.  As the kids say these days, ‘growing old sucks’. The Props design is by Phillip Korth, and Hair & Wig design by Peter Herman, complete the creative team.  The Stage Manager is Danielle Stephens.

“The Sunshine Boys” is a fun and enjoyable evening in the theatre without one f-bomb being hurled from the stage, so it’s okay to bring grandma and the kids.  The play running at North Coast Repertory Theatre, has been extended to November 24, 2019.  It’s a Must See!

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