Do you like to laugh? If you don’t, you should probably see a doctor about that. But if you do like to laugh, I suggest you get yourself to The Keegan Theatre for their current run of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. It’s no exaggeration to say that my face hurt by the end of the night from laughing so hard, and that’s a pretty good standard for a comedy to meet.
Simon’s play opened on Broadway in 1972 and was nominated for a number of Tony Awards. Simon also wrote popular adaptations of the play for film and television. The Sunshine Boys concerns the television reunion of vaudeville stars Al Lewis (Timothy H. Lynch) and Willie Clark (Kevin Adams), known in the business as “Lewis and Clark” and “The Sunshine Boys”. But even though the two worked together for 43 years, they haven’t actually spoken for 12 – and considering that they only split up 11 years ago, their issues are pretty serious. It’s difficult for Willie’s agent nephew Ben Silverman (Peter Finnegan) to get the two men in the same room, much less working together. That room – the shoddy hotel room that Willie Clark has been living in since forever – feels appropriately lived in, thanks to scenic design by Eric Lucas and set dressing by Carol Floretta H. Baker. When Clark made his first appearance asleep in front of the television, I thought, “This feels right.”
The whole thing feels right, really. When a cast is this solid, it’s tempting to just say that everybody did what they needed to and then move on. But that wouldn’t make for much of a read, and it would certainly sell the actors short. As Willie Clark, Kevin Adams is the clear star of the show. He’s funny, charming, cantankerous, and believably unconcerned with the realities of his situation. It’s the turns, though, that are most impressive, when Adams is forced to spin Clark’s emotions on a dime. That’s a difficult task for any actor, but especially in a laugh-a-minute production like this one. Co-star Timothy H. Lynch’s Al Lewis has a bit less stage time, but its a credit to his strengths that I keep having to remind myself of that fact. In classic vaudevillian style he’s the thin man to Adams’s fat man, a hard-of-hearing straight man to Adams’s forgetful clown. It takes some really spry actors to be this decrepit. Both men, in turn, are pains-in-the-ass of Peter Finnegan’s Ben Silverman. Finnegan provides the anchor for both the plot and the emotional development of the other characters. He’s the butt of the jokes, the catalyst for the reunion, the audience stand-in for a sane person dealing with crazy people. And yet he never feels like a mere narrative necessity. Finnegan puts some real emotional weight behind the character, balancing the over-the-top antics occurring on-stage. The supporting cast does just fine, but Kecia A. Campbell deserves special mention for her role as a nurse late in the production. It can be hard to make an impression when you’re showing up for the first time in the third act, but Campbell manages to hold her own against Adams playing Willie at his worst.
While it never strays into the maudlin, the play also has a surprising amount of heart to balance the laughs. Productions at Keegan stand out due to the strengths of the relationships between characters, and The Sunshine Boys is no different. Willie is funny enough on his own, but he lights up when Ben is there – you can tell that the old man loves having both a straight man and an audience. It’s easy to see why Silverman is so exasperated with his uncle, but slightly harder to see why he remains concerned about someone who treats him like an agent rather than a nephew. But that’s all part of the design – Adams’s Clark is a man of hidden depths. He’ll tell his nephew that Al Lewis was the best, thought he can’t look his old partner in the eye; he’ll tell Lewis that his nephew is the best family he could ask for. And by the end of the play, Clark drops his guard for some moments of real affection.
It’s great to see a production where the whole crew really seems to get behind a script. Simon manages to expertly lift the rhythm and patter of classic vaudeville routines, and Director Michael Innocenti has managed the delicate balancing act of going for the big laughs without losing sight of the real emotion of the piece. More than anything else, you can sense the absolute glee that that everyone on stage has running through the bits.
Running Time: Two hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
The Sunshine Boys plays through October 19, 2013 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 892-0202, or purchase them online.