The vaude couple
Before laugh-track TV and 14-plex movie theaters, there was vaudeville. Every town on a railroad line had its vaudeville house and a continual supply of entertainment. Comedy acts, variety shows, music, dance— all of it toured the country, creating a hunger for performance that has been replaced, these days, by stadium rock, You Tube, and computer-animated virtual-reality sex.
Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, opening at the Armory for the Arts Theater on Friday, March 5, heaps history upon history. On the one hand, it’s a great example of 1970’s-vintage Simon, an award-winning brand of hilarity. On the other hand, the show is also a detailed record of a lost part of American culture— vaudeville, that is.
Simon’s work for the stage has garnered 17 Tony nominations and three statues. In 1991, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for Lost in Brooklyn). Some of the dozens of hit comedies he’s written include Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite, Promises, Promises, and Brighton Beach Memoirs.
The Sunshine Boys opened on Broadway in 1972 and was later adapted for film and TV. The plot revolves around Al Lewis and Willy Clark, a retired comic duo who grew to hate each other during their long career together and haven’t spoken for years but are reunited for a TV special. A film version of The Sunshine Boys starred George Burns and Walter Matthau. A TV version featured Woody Allen and Peter Falk.
Charles Maynard, the director of Santa Fe Performing Arts Adult Company’s production of The Sunshine Boys, told Pasatiempo that Simon did extensive research on at least one famous vaudeville duo for this play. The team of Smith and Dale reportedly formed after the two men ran into each other on the streets of New York, literally— in a bicycle collision. During their original meeting, a fistfight, the two men attracted such a crowd of onlookers and caused so much laughter that they decided to form an act.
In Simon’s version, when the two septuagenarian performers are urged to make a comeback, time has healed nothing. “It’s like a bad marriage,” said Maynard. “When they get back together to do their old act for the TV special, all the conflicts come right back to the surface. They can’t stand each other.”
Actor and Santa Fe resident Alan Arkin, who directed the original Broadway production, graciously offered to spend several rehearsals with the Santa Fe company. “He told us that Willy, one of the old comics, had spent his whole adult life turning everything into a joke, but he wasn’t an innately funny person. Not making him funny makes the show funnier,” said Maynard. “Arkin worked with the leads, but also with the smaller roles, to help each one come up with a good character. We only had him for four rehearsals, because he had to go off and make a movie. But since then, we’ve built on his suggestions.”
In the Santa Fe production, Paul Walsky plays Willy and Jonathan Richards plays Al, with Hardy Pinnell taking on the part of Al’s nephew Ben, who gets the TV-reunion ball rolling. Debrianna Mansini, who plays the nurse in the vaudeville reenactment sketch, is another veteran actor who knows how to play comedy.
“I’ve been a Santa Fe resident for 12 years, and I don’t recall a single local production of a Neil Simon play in all that time,” Maynard said. “Neil Simon is the best comedy around. He writes so tightly. There is no extra space for error. Virtually every line is a good laugh line, and it’s easy to memorize. We’ve been working since January, and we’re so ready to have an audience.” The director is almost willing to offer a laugh guarantee. “Real belly laughing,” he said. “Our goal is a laugh a minute.”
The Sunshine Boys offers something very unusual, Maynard said— great comic roles for older actors. Here are two comic leads refusing to retire. “One of them is calling his agent six times a day from assisted living, hoping to get work. We’re all trying to break out from the stereotypes about senior citizens,” he said. “But Neil Simon makes it funny.”