The vaude cou­ple

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - Michael Wade Simp­son

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.”

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