Simon's 'Sunshine'

Top Hat Theatre Club debuts with an inspired production of an aging play

There's one last expedition ahead for Lewis and Clark, the "Sunshine Boys" of vaudeville. It's 1972, and the elderly Al Lewis and Willie Clark have been asked to perform one of their classic skits on a nostalgic TV special surveying the long-dead vaudeville scene.

The trouble is, Al and Willie haven't worked together in 11 years. They haven't even spoken to each other. In fact, they can't stand one another. One says of the other, "As an actor, nobody could touch him. As a person, nobody wanted to touch him."

After a 43-year partnership, Al suddenly called it quits to become a stockbroker. Willie blames Al for absconding with his career--except for a few demeaning commercials, he hasn't worked since. Obviously, this reunion, if it even takes place, will go very, very wrong.

It's Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, the initial offering of James Mitchell Gooden's Top Hat Theatre Club. With its two bickering, mismatched senior characters, call it The Old Couple. This is vintage Simon, which isn't entirely a good thing. It's a series of (often funny) gag lines strung along the flimsiest of crisis-plots, amusing while it lasts, perhaps, but missing every opportunity to flesh out the characters. After the play, my wife said of Willie, the sharp-tongued, grudge-burdened, semi-senile crank, "He's just a mean old man. What's so funny about that? Why should I care about him?"

Simon gives us no particular reason to care about Willie, but plenty of people care about Simon. When I saw the show on its second weekend, the small house (in a Fort Lowell strip mall) was packed--an astonishing success for a theater company that had been in business for little more than a week. This is smart, sharp work by experienced local theater people, and even if you don't care for the play, you can't help but enjoy the production.

By not straining for effect, the actors are actually funnier than the script as they vent the accumulated frustrations and secret resentments of a long vaudeville "marriage." Call it Catskills on a Hot Tin Roof. Bruce Bieszki and Brian Wees certainly play Willie and Al with plenty of borscht under the belt, but they're careful to delineate between the "real" men they portray and the put-on characters in their climactic Act 2 skit, even though Simon often blurs the distinction.

To his credit, Bieszki plays Willie straightforwardly as a resentful crank, not trying to endear himself to the audience as a cute, old curmudgeon. This is a very honest performance, whose lightness comes from Bieszki's sharp timing; he's overcome his old habit of pausing for a breath and a gear-turn in the brain before every line, as if he were in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Bieszki is well matched by Wees, who is actually substantially younger than Al (just as Bieszki is younger than his character). Yet Wees is absolutely convincing as a physically declining man in his 70s, and he brings a great deal of wry dignity to his role.

James Mitchell Gooden, who directed the show, plays Willie's nephew-agent with affection smudged by exasperation. Just as he doesn't ask the other cast members to overplay their roles, Gooden gives us a Ben who is put-upon but not (usually) hysterical.

They and a few supporting actors are working on an admittedly bare-bones start-up set. For example, the skeleton required for the doctor skit from Lewis and Clark's old vaudeville routine is just a Halloween cutout tacked to the wall. I suppose this adds to the production's goofy charm, and the scenery will probably become more substantial as the theater starts raking in the dough from this and future comedy shows, including more Simon in the fall.

True, this production does miss some of the underlying sadness that could give this script some depth, but, hey--this is Neil Simon. What's more likely to do in The Sunshine Boys before long is that many of its references are already as dated as vaudeville was in 1972. People under 35 are likely to be mystified by an allusion to Flip Wilson, and a serious line about relying on Social Security has become unintentionally funny. And, truth be told, the doctor sketch, which is supposed to have been Lewis and Clark's greatest triumph, is awfully stale, for which we should blame Simon, not vaudeville.

So see The Sunshine Boys while you can, before it goes the way of the farce Our American Cousin, which is remembered today only because it was the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. At least nobody dies at Top Hat Theatre Club.

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