Theatre Review: THE SUNSHINE BOYS at Bristol Riverside Theatre

The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon opened on Broadway in 1972.  Directed by Alan Arkin it featured Jack Albertson as Willie Clark and Sam Levene as Al Lewis.  Lewis and Clark were a comedy team known for 43 years as “The Sunshine Boys.”  One night after the Ed Sullivan show Al Lewis abruptly retired.  For the 11 years since, they have not spoken.  Willie has remained in show business, but not successfully.  He is represented by his loving nephew who arranges with CBS to feature the reunion of the pair for one night.  In 1975 there was a very successful film version featuring Walter Mathau as Willie and George Burns as Al Lewis.

Through the years many revivals have featured many famous names, but the production I witnessed on the Bristol Riverside stage Thursday evening should be mentioned in the same breath as the originals.  Director Keith Baker’s production fully captures both the pathos and humor of this wonderful comedic tour de force.  Like all good directors, Baker solves the main problems by the casting.  As the peripatetic Willie Clark, the consistently brilliant Carl Wallnau brings an incredibly large bag of comedy tricks.  His comic toolbox is filled with gestures, body language, vocal inflection and perfect comic timing.  He takes the audience on an emotional journey that lasts the entire evening.

Allen Lewis Rickman, Nicole Benoit, Carl Wallnau Photo by Mark Garvin

As the foil for Willie, Allan Lewis Rickman is perfect as Al Lewis.  It is fascinating how the off-stage characters come fully alive when doing their famous routine.  As Willie’s nephew/agent, Jason Silverman urgently wants to reunite the partners.  He knows they both want it, but they are too stubborn and prideful to admit any wrongdoing.  Silverman does a great job of directing the audience’s feelings toward this broken team. The remainder of the cast shine in their moments.  Dominic Sannelli (patient), Christopher J. Perugini (Eddie), Nicole Benoit (the buxom, comic Nurse), and Demetria Joyce Bailey (Willie’s quick-witted real nurse) all contribute mightily to the story.

Baker has put the same care into selecting his staff.  Jason Simms’s scenic design captures the times and socioeconomic living space.  You feel that you are in the apartment of someone not too well off.  Likewise, Linda B. Stockton’s costumes contribute to the sense of time and place.  Charles Reece’s lighting design and Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design both compliment wonderfully the set and costumes. Baker and his staff keep a brisk, but not raced pace.  He lets his actors find their own timing and delivery thus shaping the world that we as the audience see.

The Sunshine Boys continues as Bristol Riverside Theatre until March 31st.  For tickets and information call 215-785-0100 or go to the web site, http://www.brtstage.org.  It is a trip worth taking for pure comic fun.

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