Why would anyone bother to revive The Sunshine Boys, Neil Simon’s corny, sentimental 1972 comedy about a couple of bickering showbiz old-timers? Soulpepper Theatre has two good reasons: Eric Peterson and Kenneth Welsh. As Lewis and Clark, a retired vaudeville act reluctantly reunited for a television special, the two beloved actors transform a meagre script into a jolly feast.
Most of the time it isn’t their lines – Simon’s usual second-rate wisecracks and now-dated topical humour – but how they say them that provokes the laughs. And they are at their brilliant best when they aren’t speaking at all. In their first scene together, Welsh’s dapper, taciturn Al Lewis appears stiff and slightly senile, but his keen little eyes dart back and forth from behind his big, round glasses. He’s like a cat waiting patiently to pounce – or, in his case, to deliver a dry one-liner. It’s no wonder his cranky co-star, Willie Clark, begrudgingly praises his perfect timing.
Peterson’s Willie, meanwhile, is the opposite: Impatient, agitated, he insists on taking huge gulps from a mug of too-hot tea, holding the liquid in his mouth to prevent scalding his throat. He’s clearly the wacky, impulsive half of the duo. In these little mannerisms, Welsh and Peterson deftly reveal their characters’ contrasting personalities and why, as a team, they have such volatile chemistry. Watching these two Canadian legends is like taking a master class in comic performance.
It’s unfortunate they haven’t been given something more substantial to play with. Soulpepper obviously has a fondness for Simon – the company did a successful revival of The Odd Couple in 2008 (remounted last year) – but The Sunshine Boys seldom rises above the sitcom level. Simon’s affection for these elderly vaudevillians is obvious, but he shies away from really exploring the dynamics of a comedy team. He’s content to fall back on his old oil-and-water shtick from his most famous play, so that what we end up with is just a geriatric Odd Couple.
Indeed, Willie is as loud and slovenly as Oscar Madison, while Al is fastidious in the Felix Ungar mould. But what gets Willie’s goat and has ostensibly kept them estranged for 11 years are Al’s irritating onstage habits. In truth, the real reason he hasn’t forgiven his ex-partner is that Al decided to retire from the act before Willie was ready. While Al has settled contentedly into his twilight years, living in New Jersey with his daughter’s family, restless Willie is still hounding his agent – his long-suffering nephew Ben (Jordan Pettle) – to get him work. Yet whatever the cause of their rift, the two men seem to have a genius for exasperating one another – as we discover when they meet in Willie’s New York hotel room to rehearse one of their classic skits for the TV show.
Later, we see them perform this ancient routine in a dress rehearsal at the CBS studios. Here again, Peterson and Welsh go beyond the script to show us the old Lewis and Clark magic. The skit may be broad and lewd (more burlesque than vaudeville), but their creaky old duffers run through it flawlessly, exchanging rapid-fire zingers like tennis pros engaged in a heated volley. They give us a brief sense of why these two comedians kept at it for 43 years despite their differences. If you doubt how much Welsh and Peterson bring to the table, just check out the 1975 film, starring Walter Matthau and an Oscar-winning George Burns, in which the same scene is simply dreadful.
Credit is also due to director Ted Dykstra, who gives Welsh and Peterson the scope to work their own, more artful magic. He also gets a nice nervous-nebbish performance from Pettle as Ben and coaxes an enjoyably sassy one from Soulpepper newcomer Quancetia Hamilton as an unflappable nurse. Set and costume designer Patrick Clark gives Willie a hotel room just drab and cluttered enough to indicate neglectful old age without being depressing. The Seventies make themselves known in loud plaid clothing, Hamilton’s afro and paperback copies of The Exorcist and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Running in repertory at Soulpepper with Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet’s deeply cynical take on modern Hollywood, Simon’s play could be seen as the other side of the coin – a funny valentine to old-school showbiz. But regardless of whether you buy into its yuks and schmaltz, this Sunshine Boys is a chance to bask in the warm rays of two magnificent talents.
The Sunshine Boys runs until Sept. 22.