Pulled from the stringy, sharply wry mind of the late Neil Simon comes the pathos-stuffed comedy that is “The Sunshine Boys,” which made its 1972 debut on the hallowed floorboards of the Broadway stage. Now it comes to the cozy theater-space that is North Coast Repertory in Solana Beach, with Lenny Wolpe and James Sutorius starring in the title roles.
The plot of “The Sunshine Boys” concerns two vaudeville performers entering their twilight years: Willie Clark and Al Lewis, otherwise known as Lewis and Clark (geddit? Like the explorers). However, as time goes on, the longtime duo soon come to dislike one another and split up. Al retires whilst Willie tries to keep himself relevant by starring in various television commercials. Eventually, Willie’s nephew convinces him to reunite with Al for a CBS comedy special.
Broadway and television actor Lenny Wolpe stars as Willie Clark. Though he had seen the movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s play as a young adult, he described this production as his first thorough exposure to the source material.
“I’d worked with Jeff Moss a number of times, the director,” he said. “And last spring he asked me if I would like to do it. So that was the beginning of my journey. So, then I read the script and got familiar with it.” Wolpe estimated that he’s worked with Jeffrey B. Moss five to six times in the past.
A past production helped set Wolpe on the path to playing a vaudevillian actor. “I’d done a show in New York a couple years ago, it was called ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes,’ it was a very scripted show, but it was based on a lot of sketches and jokes and everything. It was a big hit around, like, a year and a half. So that was my first big exposure to doing a show where you weren’t necessarily playing a character as an actor, but you were just there to do the rhythm of these jokes and sketches, and you did it eight times a week, and it wasn’t character-driven. It was about getting the laughs and exploring that kind of comedy.”
This production marks Wolpe’s first time working with James Sutorius, who plays Al Lewis. Wolpe called him “fantastic” and a treat to work with. “James and I, luckily, we’re in the ballpark, age-wise of these two characters. So … and we’ve been in the business forever, and I think we both understand that.”
He went on to explain that a major theme of the show is accepting when you have to “put your makeup in the drawer and not do it anymore. It’s tricky. I have friends and they don’t do theater anymore, because they go, ‘I just can’t remember the lines, and I’m afraid I won’t know them.’ They’ll still do television, or commercial (unintelligible). But that was a huge admission to just go ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ And I think that’s what the show is about, is when do you decide you’re done, and face that.”
The Sunshine Boys opens at North Coast Rep on Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. It will play Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. through Nov. 17. Weeknights, Wednesday and Saturday matinees are $52; Saturday evening and Sunday matinees are $57; Sunday night is $49.
Alex Wehrung covers Rancho Santa Fe and theatre-related news in North County. He previously reported for The Daily Nexus in Santa Barbara, CA and the Escondido Times-Advocate in Escondido, CA.