Play: “The Sunshine Boys”
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: December 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19
Tickets: $10-$25; contact 800-982-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com
Story: Willie Clark is an entertainer and plans to be one until his dying day. His 40-year career in vaudeville and on the comedy circuit, though, was abruptly derailed after a performance when his partner, Al Lewis, told Willie that he was retiring. Since the duo hadn’t spoken off-stage for more than a year, Willie wasn’t bothered about their estranged friendship nearly as much as the sudden blow to his career.
Now, a dozen years later, Willie is approached by his nephew and manager Ben about a job opportunity: CBS-TV wants to reunite Lewis and Clark for a retrospective on the history of comedy. Ben asks his uncle and Lewis to perform their famous ‘doctor’ skit, and Lewis is amenable. Now, Ben must convince his irascible uncle to leave his dingy hotel room for another, albeit fleeting, shot at stardom with the one-time partner who has been the subject of Clark’s wrath for more than a decade.
Highlights: Prolific Neil Simon’s comedy about two warring veterans from the “golden age of comedy” was first produced in 1972 and ran for more than 500 performances, another in Simon’s impressive resume of bona fide Broadway hits. Jack Albertson and Sam Levene had the title roles, which were performed subsequently on film by George Burns and Walter Matthau. As with many of Simon’s works, it’s filled with one-liners that are funny both as written and with the expertly timed delivery of a proven performer.
Such is the case with St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s current presentation, which features consistently winning performances by Joneal Joplin as Clark and Whit Reichert as Lewis. Jop masters the biting, flip wit of Clark as naturally as Reichert captures the halting, more elegant approach of Lewis, now living with his daughter and her family in the distant land of New Jersey light years removed from the hustle and bustle of New York City, at least as Clark perceives it. Director Milt Zoth smoothly guides these accomplished veterans in a wonderful presentation that is long on laughs and dusted with a bit of poignancy as well.
Other Info: Zoth greatly enhances the work of Joplin and Reichert with a splendid turn by producing director William Roth as Ben. Roth’s portrayal of the kindly, middle-age nephew is deferential to Lewis and a convenient foil and straight man to his quick-witted uncle. His verbal interplay with Joplin adds immeasurably to the overall quality of the production beyond the star power of the two principals.
Julie Venegoni is also terrific in two supporting roles as a pair of disparate nurses, the former a voluptuous sexpot stirring up the passions of the wily old doctor played by Clark as well as a real-life caretaker looking after Willie following an unforeseen health mishap. Her delivery matches the personalities of the respective nurses as well as playing nicely off Joplin’s droll mannerisms. James Slover and Eric White contribute effectively as an unsuspecting patient in the skit and an exasperated stage hand trying to navigate the verbal mine field between the two cantankerous old performers on the set of the TV special.
Patrick Huber’s set design amusingly incorporates a tiny kitchen, a portable TV with an extension cord precipitously winding across the stage, a bed, a table and a pair of chairs that become the props for a priceless pantomime of the two old dogs setting up their famous skit in unforgettably funny fashion. Bonnie Kruger adds the clever costumes, including Clark’s omnipresent pajamas, Huber provides the lighting, with complementary sound design by Robin Weatherall and amusing props courtesy of Maggy Bort.
It’s a real treat to see two savvy pros such as Joplin and Reichert in action together. That’s especially the case in a production smartly accentuating their talents as much as Zoth does in this classy rendition which underscores Simon’s unique gift for the human comedy.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.