I’ve gone on record many, many times in stating my vehement objection to Neil Simon’s plays, both as theater and as commentary on the big-city human condition. He backs into his characters like an 18-wheeler stuck in reverse; his stock dialogue is far better suited to late-’50s television (an entirely different medium, wherein he hit it big alongside names like Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar).
Get him to write about anything other than sticky family relationships in an urban setting, and he’d fold like an orthopedic chair (he took that dubious legacy with him last August, when he died of pneumonia at age 91).
But the theater is nothing if not a shining example of democracy at work. One of its defining traits is its directors, who mold the playwright’s action and ideas into a creative unit, replete with a collaborative spirit.
What a joy, then, to behold Lamplighters Theatre’s “The Sunshine Boys,” Simon’s take on a longtime vaudeville act’s return to the stage. Steve Murdock’s direction is a thing to experience, especially amid Simon’s insistence on the formulas that made him a star.
This is a very well-executed script that succeeds least of all because of the playwright, who couldn’t paint a frontal character with a spray can and an automatic nozzle.
Y’all know the story, if only through the 1975 film that won an Oscar and several Golden Globes with George Burns and Walter Matthau behind it: A pair of vaudeville comedians who performed together for nearly five decades called it quits 11 years ago amid a feud over one’s sudden retirement. Enter a TV network man who wants to reunite the duo for a special about the history of comedy. It remains to be seen if funnymen Al Lewis and Willie Clark (Lewis and Clark, of course) can set aside their flap to collect a paycheck.
Ironically, a colleague’s death gets them talking again, but not before Willie (once literally stranded onstage as Al hastily left the business) takes his measure of retaliation following a heart attack. All the while, Willie’s nephew and talent agent Ben furnishes the voice of reason, humbled and delighted to take his modest place among the greats.
Speaking of Ben: There’s absolutely no good reason behind his family relationship with Willie, except for Simon’s inexplicable need to exploit kinship at every turn (anything else, see, would alter his precious formulaic approach, spelling disaster). While Simon’s wordplay may be clever, it’s steeped within an almost mathematical blueprint here — you can draw a play within a play, the ubiquitous New York setting and a wholesale absence of exposition only so far before any sense of skill simply evaporates.
Simon never really escaped his TV roots, and somehow, the theater endlessly forgave him.
But Murdock remains unmoved. He draws his Al and Willie independent of Simon’s sentimentality, with Al’s stuffed-shirt conceit conflicting directly alongside Willie’s gruff embitterment.
He’s also shaped Ben as the kindly reconciler, whose basic innocence brings Willie down to earth at all the right moments. What’s more, he knows to do nothing whatsoever during Simon’s more blustery speeches so as not to attract undue attention. Very, very nice directorial effort.
It’s a shame to waste Willie on the capable, funny Christopher Pittman — thanks to Simon, we never get to the psychology that traps Willie in his singleminded anger, even as Pittman excels. Al is marked by a nice false bravado, which Richard Rivera efficiently projects through his carriage and facial expressions. James Steinberg’s Ben is a born peacekeeper (he has two little ones of his own, and his skill as an arbiter transfers effortlessly to Willie’s world). Everybody else is fine in a gamut of characters ranging from a flirty nurse to a no-nonsense stage manager.
- P. Hadlock’s set is a tad too deep to register its details (which also affects Paul Ericson’s light design), but its washed-out color schemes are spot-on. The rest of the tech effort is balanced and fairly efficient.
This isn’t the first time a theater group has transcended Simon’s ineptitude — Solana Beach’s North Coast Repertory Theatre mounted a respectable “Chapter Two” four seasons ago, and what could have been a maudlin tear-jerker suddenly morphed into a decent character study. The thing is that it takes a colossal amount of work and thought to pare Simon’s language and plots — this time, Lamplighters won.
This review is based on the matinee performance of July 7.
“The Sunshine Boys” runs through August 4 at Lamplighters Theatre, 5915 Severin Drive in La Mesa. $18-$23. 619-303-5092, lamplighterslamesa.com.