The first thing that’s striking about North Coast Repertory’s production of the Neil Simon-penned “The Sunshine Boys” is just how damn good the set looks. Over three quarters of the play takes place in the apartment of Willie Clark, one half of the titular Sunshine Boys. The place looks well lived-in; books are tucked underneath the bed, one of the chairs is disintegrating, an ashtray sits on a nightstand.
But there’s also a sense of sad nostalgia about the place. Old pictures and periodicals hang on the walls, and a fake leg — no doubt a prop — hangs by the bathroom doorframe. Willie Clark, despite what appears to be a serious case of short-term memory loss, is unwilling to let go of his past. At least, parts of it.
Clark, played with a natural effortlessness by Lenny Wolpe, is something of a curmudgeon who toes the line between sympathetic and otherwise. He clearly wants to go on performing despite his fading memory, unwilling to let himself fade into the background of the entertainment industry. But he is also frequently abrasive, both to his nephew and to his former partner Al Lewis, with whom he holds several grudges against.
Lewis is played with an equal level of convincing finesse by James Sutorius, who is more soft-spoken and terser in his performance. Unlike Clark, Lewis has no issues with his memory, but like his partner, he is so caught up in the minutiae of their routines that he stubbornly refuses to accept any sort of variation. While Lewis clearly wants to reunite with his old partner, he is also unwilling to put up with Clark’s temper. They are alike in obvious ways, but the differences in their respective styles of performance pull them apart, setting up the story’s central conflict.
Much of the Borscht Belt-style of humor is wrung out of Clark’s interactions with his exasperated nephew Ben Silverman (Bryan Banville), who serves as both his agent and his reluctant caretaker. He is both the butt of his uncle’s jokes and must endure Clark getting his children’s names consistently wrong. There is certainly a warmth in the relationship, as Silverman refuses to abandon his uncle to a negligent lifestyle, despite Willie’s consistent (perhaps unknowing) attempts to drive him out of his life through sheer irritation.
There are also the amusing interactions between Lewis and Clark to be had; Wolpe and Sutorius take loud-mouthed exasperation and elevate it into an art form. As they rehearse their famous sketch, the two veteran vaudevillians nearly come to each other’s throats, shouting at one another over the placement of props, the timing of entrances, and saying “Enter!” with over-the-top aplomb instead of the tried-and-true-we’ve-done-this-for-nearly-four-decades “Come in.”
There is definitely some sense that the humor is repetitive, with most of the laughs being wrung out of silly wordplay. It’s the dominant type of humor, though we do get something of a comedic interlude when the Sunshine Boy’s perform their doctor’s office sketch, which is traditionally vaudevillian in its humor and delivery, more slapstick and raunchy.
North Coast Repertory’s “The Sunshine Boys” is an amusing, sweet affair of two cranky old men who reunite for one last reluctant hurrah. It’s a simple story that’s good for plenty of chuckles and a warm feeling that nestles in your chest as the lights go down.
The Sunshine Boys runs until Nov. 24 at North Coast Rep, Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. with Sundays at 7pm through Nov. 17.
Ticket prices are as follows: Previews are $46. Weeknights, Wednesday and Saturday matinees are $52. Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees are $57. Sunday nights are $49. By popular demand, a Wednesday matinee will play on Nov. 13, at 2 p.m. for $52. Seniors, students, military and educators get $3 off admission.
Call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org to purchase tickets.
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.