'Sunshine Boys' Lights Up Colonial Players Stage

Stick, Schmick . . . Have Fun!

September 17, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

I enjoy Neil Simon plays, and I've always found it great fun to listen to cranky old Jewish men complain.

So I really like "The Sunshine Boys," which gives me an opportunity to do both.

In production at the Colonial Players of Annapolis, "The SunshineBoys" is the story of the lingering bitterness felt by a pair of classic vaudevillians over the decade after the dissolution of their act.

The jokes fly fast and furious and the neatness-sloppiness conflict of "The Odd Couple" is resurrected with a different twist. In theend, we are touched by the unpretentious humanity of the playwright and his characters despite the fact that Simon isn't -- yeah, yeah --Ibsen or Shakespeare. Shakespeare, Shmakespeare, "The Sunshine Boys"is great fun when done well.

Which it most assuredly is over at Colonial Players.

The curmudgeonly nastiness of Willie Clark and the finger-poking "noodginess" of the fastidious Al Lewis emerge with authentic comic flair and join to create a production admirably animated by its two stars.

Richard Kirstel is a bundle of misanthropic energy as Willie Clark. Whether berating his nephew and agent Ben, foaming at the mouth in anger over his former partner of kvetching at his nurse ("I move two inches in two weeks and she tells me to slow down!"), Kirstel's Willie is a show-carrier throughout.

And, like hischaracter, he doesn't work alone. A. C. Boughton is also excellent as Al Lewis, the more sympathetic partner whose finger jabs and excessive salivations drive Willie crazy. (Admittedly, a short drive.)

This is a show about the timing and pacing of comic dialogue and both these guys know what to do with a joke. Their on-stage chemistry is palpable, while their vocal inflections and physical gestures are justwhat the playwright ordered.

Only on a few occasions does their pacing go awry. The play's occasional jabs of irony need more of a setup. "If you hated him so much, Uncle Willie," asks nephew Ben, "then why did you work with him?"

"Because he was terrific," answers Willie after having done nothing but rant and rave about his former partner for page after page of dialogue.

Such irony should be savored a bit more; it's not part of the Simonesque comic overdrive that pushes the show. It shouldn't sound it.

Also rushed is the listing of props by Boughton. The "ah-stick schtick" is much funnier when delivered more deliberately.

The only truly distracting aspect of this production, however, is that the Jewish accents are overdone. Lewis and Clark were American vaudevillians but they are made to sound as thought they were fresh-off-the-boat participants in the old Yiddish theater.

Kirstel, in particular, winds up sounding like a dyspeptic Jackie Mason. His New Yorkese ("woist" for worst, "rehoising," etc.) is cute enough I suppose, but "speeting" (spitting), "peelow" (pillow)and "bestid" (You figure it out!) are overly Yiddishized sounds thatobscure Willie's origins as Simon drew them.

Boughton is better but occasionally goes off the deep end as well. ("Crecker" for cracker, and with a rolled "r" yet.)

Some linguistic adjustments are in order. Assuming they are made, these prodigious performances could become definitive.

The supporting players are all quite enjoyable. Nick Beschen, as Ben, becomes understandably frustrated by his obnoxious uncle, but his affection for the old coot comes across convincingly. Ben can be played with traces of boyish good humor, but Beschen paces and grimaces too much to be genial. It works nicely, however: who wouldn't be driven absolutely crazy by such a thankless relative?

Claudia Blackstone makes her stage debut quite nicely as the feisty nurse who doesn't take any of Willie's guff.

What a delightful playthis is. Seeing "The Sunshine Boys" might not solve all your problems in this difficult and crazy world but, as the man said, "It wouldn't hoit."

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