By Dale King
Broward Stage Door Theater has plucked a gem from the Neil Simon vault – the playwright’s paean to vaudeville, The Sunshine Boys – and presents it like a shiny, late-summer gift to welcoming audiences at the Margate performance venue.
Director Michael Leeds, who has helmed an arm’s length list of shows at the theater on Sample Road, taps a couple of veteran performers to portray — well, a couple of veteran performers. Michael H. Small and Peter Librach comfortably slip into the roles of “Lewis and Clark,” a famed vaudeville duo for 40-plus years until a rift tore them asunder. They haven’t spoken for more than a decade.
So, when Willie Clark’s nephew, Ben Silverman (Ben Sandomir), approaches his irascible, reclusive uncle about reuniting with his ex-partner, Al Lewis, to perform one of their classic skits on a television special about the history of comedy, he is initially dead-set against it. With a lot of arm-twisting, Ben convinces unwilling Willie to give it a try.
But the reunion effort doesn’t even make it through dress rehearsal before the angst of yesteryear rears its ugly head. The tension is so intense that Willie suffers a heart attack during the practice session. His period of recovery gives both Sunshine Boys a chance to rediscover the light that kept them together for so long.
The Sunshine Boys “is the fourth Neil Simon play I’ve directed and I think it’s his best,” says Leeds. “It’s incredibly funny, I mean rolling in the aisles funny, and also quite touching.”
The director gives a couple of thumbs up to the ensemble that makes the Simon production work. “I was lucky enough to get a great cast led by Michael Small and Peter Librach, two pros who have these characters in their bones.”
The show, he says, is based on an actual actor named Willie Howard, a very eccentric vaudeville comedian. Simon got the idea of giving Willie a partner whom he hadn’t spoken to in 12 years. They were going to be on an Ed Sullivan special – yet they couldn’t stand each other.
Broward’s version of The Sunshine Boys places Willie in a flophouse hotel visited each Wednesday by his doting, grocery-delivering nephew, whose level of anxiety soars each time he shows up. “I get chest pains every Wednesday,” he says while trying to catch his breath. Willie deadpans: “Then come on Tuesdays.”
Willie says his utter disdain for his ex-partner was the result of Al poking him in the chest and spitting in his face pronouncing words starting with “T” during each skit.
So why did the stay together 43 years? Come see for yourself.
Actually, The Sunshine Boys’ stage setting is nearly as important as characterization. Willie’s room is as disheveled as his life. As Act II opens, a medical office set appears, the spot where Al and Willie rehearse their famed skit, “The Doctor Will See You Now,” a bit that seems to rank up there with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.” It features Willie as the doctor and Al as a tax collector.
With Small and Librach performing it, the scene is filled with vaudevillian shtick, atrocious one-liners and lots of rim shots. Add a patient (George Schiavone) and the obligatory buxom, blonde nurse (Jeanine Gangloff) and the tone is set.
While Simon mines plenty of laughs in this confrontation of bickering ex-buddies, he also makes it clear that aging is no joke. Willie and Al may be vaudeville characters, but, in their arguments and their mix of dependence and open hostility, they resemble elder couples fighting off the darkening clouds of mortality.
Leeds’ production is as much a character study as a joke fest, and yields glowing performances from all, including Elijah Pearson-Martinez, the harried assistant director whose efforts to maintain order during rehearsal may be overlooked by the disruptive antics of Willie and Al.
Small comes on strong to show Willie as a man of conviction. While his volcanic anger seems to stem from his yearning to work, he appears content to remain a loner. Librach’s Al is more laid back, and often responds to situations with the look of a humbled child. But he has staunch determination. So much that Willie observes: “As a performer, no one could touch him; as a human being, no one wanted to touch him.”
Sandomir is top-notch as the overwrought nephew who suffers a series of Maalox moments throughout the show. Gangloff has talent, and though she is young, she seems to grasp the requirements of vaudeville-style comedy.
Klein is just right as an actual nurse tending to Willie’s recovery. She has a tough demeanor and no desire for jokes. She’s sort of Neil Simon’s version of Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Plaudits are due the show’s production team for their contributions: set designer Michael McClain, lighting designer Dean Landhuis and costume designer Jerry Sturdivant.
The Sunshine Boys plays through Sept. 24 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 Sample Road, Margate. Tickets are $48 (student prices are available with valid ID) and may be purchased at the box office; by calling 954-344-7765 or visiting www.stagedoorfl.org.
Editor’s note: The posting of this review was delayed by technical difficulties.