"The Sunshine Boys" TheatreVirginia Through Oct. 16 $21-$33 353-6100
Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" is a classic comedy. Classic in the sense that it's old. The play is set almost 30 years ago and tells a story about two men who were old back then. So what can TheatreVirginia's production possibly offer a contemporary audience?
Surprisingly, quite a lot. The story is admirably simple: Al Lewis (John Fiedler) and Willie Clark (Irwin Charone) are two feuding old actors. They are coerced by Clark's well-meaning nephew, Ben (Warren Kelley), into reviving their famous vaudeville comedy act for a television special. Add shtick, stir, and you've got a lighthearted diversion, never too maudlin and often quite funny.
In fact, the only major lump in the batter here is Fiedler, whose diminutive voice (easily recognizable as Piglet's from the Winnie the Pooh cartoons) and static stage presence drain much of the energy out of the middle third of the play. While a charming actor in the right role (e.g., his stint as Mr. Peterson on the old Bob Newhart show), he is ill-used here, and he never musters adequate chutzpah to duke it out with Charone onstage.
As Willie, Charone capitalizes on his many opportunities to chew up the scenery. He brings an almost simian physicality to the role. His walk is a rangy shuffle with long arms swinging, his face a mutable canvas with eyes often thrown wide open.
Contrasting nicely with Willie is the buttoned-down Ben. Kelley infuses the character with vigorous energy, bustling about the well-appointed set (top-notch scenic design by James W. Hunter) and skillfully trading barbs with the old man. More importantly, Kelley gives Ben dimension, making him the most fully defined character in the show. He's not just Willie's straight man but also a compassionate relative. His love and admiration for Willie are clearly visible.
The early scenes between Willie and Ben are the highlights, funny and fast-paced with the actors sharing an engaging chemistry. But the action slows with Lewis' arrival in the middle of the first act. Things don't pick up again until the "doctor's sketch" in the second act, a delightfully politically incorrect bit of vaudeville. The sketch is the cornerstone of the Lewis and Clark comedy act. In it, Willie plays a quack doctor who shamelessly ogles his impressively endowed nurse (Jeanne Jones). Jones makes the most of her small slice of stage time. She is affable and unflinching in the face of Willie's unrepentant leers.
Later on, Willie faces off against a real nurse (Mimi Bensinger) hired to take care of him. When Bensinger also hits all the right comic notes in her tˆte-…-tˆtes with Charone, it becomes clear that only Fiedler doesn't quite fit in with this crowd.
Given that Willie and Al are supposed to be a legendary comedy team, the lack of comic zing between them could have meant a dark and stormy forecast for this production. Luckily, director George Black provides an adequate number of other pleasures in the show, so that its deficiencies are merely scattered clouds in an otherwise bright and amiable "Sunshine
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