Legendary feuds between prominent stars has probably existed for as long as theater has been performed. It’s not surprising when two notable stars of the stage and screen, who have excellent chemistry, turn out to hate each other in real life.
Neil Simon’s comedy, The Sunshine Boys terrifically depicts a partnership gone sour in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s strong production.
Set in New York City during the early 1970s, an elderly actor, Willie Clark (Lenny Wolpe), relies on his nephew and agent, Ben Silverman (Bryan Banville), to get him gigs. Struggling to find roles for his uncle, Ben tells Willie about a CBS “History of Comedy” special.
Ben tries to convince Willie to appear on the show with his former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis (James Sutorius). Still hurt by Al’s retirement from entertainment when they were the comedy act, Lewis and Clark, Willie reluctantly reunites with his former professional partner.
Once Al comes over to Willie’s one room hotel suite to rehearse, the two open old wounds, and they attempt to figure out if they can work together on the television special.
Similar to his other work, the late Simon pokes fun at flawed connections with clever dialogue. Interactions that Willie shares with both Al and Ben are fleshed out well, which keeps audiences engaged with the humorous situations.
If some of the bickering between Ben and Al is a little repetitive, there are so many sharp jokes, that the characters are consistently engaging.
Wolpe and Sutorius hilariously portray a dysfunctional relationship. Wolpe plays Willie as a vocally prideful performer who’s unconventionally likable, and Sutorius depicts Al as a soft-spoken man with an angry side. While there might be some parallels to the tense friendship in Simon’s The Odd Couple, Simon’s writing and the performances make the pair in The Sunshine Boys far from pale imitations of Oscar and Felix.
Younger audience members will likely relate to Banville’s portrayal of an equally devoted and irritated nephew who is stressed out by his interactions with Willie. Banville is spot on with the way he expresses conflicting emotions opposite Wolpe.
John Tessmer and Samantha Roper only appear in one scene each, but they are very funny in their sequences with Wolpe, and leave big impressions in supporting roles.
Guiding Wolpe, Sutorius, and the rest of the ensemble, is director, Jeffrey B. Moss. Despite referencing potentially heavy subjects like death and declining health, Moss keeps Simon’s jokes rolling throughout the evening in Solana Beach.
Marty Burnett’s set perfectly depicts Willie’s sloppy lifestyle, as a messy shrine to the no longer relevant celebrity.
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes showcase Willie in various scenes. His most memorable look is a combination of pajamas and a blazer, which is a humorous sight to behold, thanks to Benzoni.
Matt Novotny’s lighting and Aaron Rumley’s audio are subtle, and both of their contributions enhance the story, particularly during scene transitions.
North Coast Rep continues a tradition of producing popular Simon plays with a satisfying staging of The Sunshine Boys. The wonderful leads provide plenty of entertainment.