Neil Simon, one Broadway’s most beloved and successful playwrights would have been extremely proud of Centenary Stage Company’s production of The Sunshine Boys. The play first premiered on Broadway in 1972. It is a story of Al Lewis and Willie Clark. Lewis and Clark were once a successful Vaudevillian comedy duo known as the Sunshine Boys. In the later years of their 43 year run, animosity grew between the partners and they ceased to speak to each other. Eventually Al Lewis would retire from show business, leaving Willie Clark struggling to keep his dreams of the stage afloat.
Fast forward 11 years, the play opens with Willy, An old man who is struggling with memory loss, accepting an offer from his Nephew and Talent agent Ben Silverman to reunite with his partner, Lewis for a CBS special on the history of comedy. Willie and Al meet in Willie's apartment to rehearse their classic doctor sketch. The reunion gets off to a bad start, with the two getting into heated arguments over various aspects of the performance. However, thanks to the urging of Al's daughter, the two decide to go through with the performance.
Willie and Al's dress rehearsal at CBS' studio is derailed by Lewis's aggressive habit of poking Clarke's chest with his index finger and spitting at him every time he says a word that has a "T" in it. One of the running gags in the play is Willie’s bitterness of being constantly poked in the chest by Lewis’ forefinger in the course of their countless routines At one point, Willie exclaims” I had a black and blue hole in my chest, He gave me the finger for 43 years!” As Lewis storms of the stage in annoyance, Clark suffers a heart attack as a result of flustered state.
Two weeks later, Willie is recovering under the care of a registered nurse. Upon Ben's recommendation, he decides to move into an actors' retirement home in New Jersey. Al, concerned about Willie's well-being, makes a visit. When the two talk, it is revealed that Al will be moving into the same home as Willie. Back together again!.
Centenary Stage’s production is directed by Keith Baker. Mr. Baker’s vision of The Sunshine Boys evokes a vision of yesteryear that made this reviewer yearn for the good ol’ days. Under his direction, the actors evoked a sense of human struggle, The struggle to be loved and adored, the struggle to mend broken relationships, and most importantly the struggle to find hope. The overall esthetic of the show encompasses an under lying love story that the characters need a lifetime to realize.
Carl Wallnau, who plays Willie Clark, is no stranger to the stage which was evident by his interpretation of Willie Clark. His portrayal of vaudevillian actor conjured the character’s lust to be once again in the limelight. This reviewer felt the thirst Willie had to be once again in front of the footlights. Wallnau and his stage mate, stage veteran David Edwards, who plays Al Lewis were excellent together. Their comedic timing was impeccable, reminiscent of the great Abbott and Costello and Monty Python. Their acting was seamless as if they had worked to together for 43 years. Wallnau and Edwards kept the audience enthralled and laughing at their characters antics.
Jason Silverman, who portrayed Willie Clark’s Nephew Ben Silverman, played the straight man to Wallnau’ Clark. The audience could feel the love of a nephew mixed with frustration of taken care of the elderly client. Silverman’s performance hit home with this reviewer, knowing well how frustrating it is to care for a loved one with memory loss.
The rest of the cast is made of the Reva Jamison, who portrayed the no nonsense registered nurse, the stunning and beautiful Burlesque nurse, played by Emaline Williams Gabriel Landes, Kevin Wehrhan, and Ryan Robert Washington who played Eddie, TV Assistant, Directors voice and man patient respectively.
Hats off to set designer Matthew Imhoff for such an exquisite set. It subtly became another character in the story of The Sunshine Boys.
The Centenary Stage Company’s production of The Sunshine Boys was a delight from beginning to end. It transported this reviewer to a simpler more nostalgic time. This show is a must see. The Sunshine Boys runs from February 14 through March 1. Enter!!! And enjoy the show.
Centenary Stage Company’s production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys continues its run now through March 1 in the Sitnik Theatre of the Lackland Performing Arts Center at 715 Grand Ave. Hackettstown, NJ on the campus of Centenary University.
Photos by Chris Young