THEATER REVIEW | “The Sunshine Boys” at the Guthrie Theater is and isn’t what it seems

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Looking around the Wurtele Thrust Stage before the curtain “raised” on opening night of The Sunshine Boys at the Guthrie on Friday, July 13, I noticed I was well below the age demographic that filled the seats. “This,” I thought, “is not going to be for me.” What I realized by the end of intermission was, like judging a book by its cover, you should never judge a play based on its audience. 

The Sunshine Boys revolves around a once-famous Vaudeville duo, “Lewis and Clark.” After years performing together, Al Lewis (Raye Birk) left partner Willie Clark (Peter Michael Goetz) to pursue a more stable and mundane existence as a financial something or other in New Jersey. Clark struggled in show biz without his partner, despite the animosity that festered between them in the last years of their act. The two are reunited 11 years later when Willie’s nephew Ben (Robert O. Berdahl) is put in charge by CBS to book the duo’s famous “Doctor’s Sketch” for a TV comedy special.

The jokes may be as dated as the days of vaudeville, but playwright Neil Simon has somehow proved to be timeless in his characters. When Willie Clark, for the first time, grumbles, “Wait a minute” while attempting to open his multi-locked door, it’s not that funny. (The audience laughter felt more on command.) But, as we get to know Willie Clark through Peter Michael Goetz’s show-stealing portrayal, when he’s trying to open the same door and mumbling the same thing later in the act, it’s suddenly and genuinely funny.

The Guthrie calls the union of “dream team” Birk and Goetz “one of the most highly anticipated events of the season.” The chemistry between Goetz and Birk as Willie Cark and Al Lewis wasn’t as effervescent as the tagline (and script) would have us believe. Willie says of Al that he knows comedy and how to deliver a line, it’s the reason he committed himself to the duo despite his misery offstage. But the scenes between Goetz and Birk lacked the magic that Willie claimed was there. Birk played the straight man to Goetz’s curmudgeon, whose wisecracking one-liners went unmatched … mostly.

Which segues to my next point. Willie’s comedic counterpart comes from an unlikely source: Greta Oglesby as the registered nurse. The scene is quick and not overtly funny: Goetz is in bed after his heart attack scare and Oglesby is tending to him. Their back-and-forth banter is effortless and pure; it is, I imagine, what “Lewis and Clark” is supposed to be.

Simon’s comedic legend in The Sunshine Boys can be epitomized in one (possibly unfounded) pop-cultural connection I made. Simon via Wille Clark claims that the hard “K” sound makes for the funniest words: cup cake, cookie, pickle, chicken etc. In episode 15 of season six of 30 Rock Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon says, “Last year, Jenna accused me of trying to destroy her because her lines didn’t have any ‘K’ sounds, which she thinks is the funniest sound.” Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the writers of 30 Rock are indeed tipping their caps to Simon. Either way, I think Simon’s humor lives on today, and this is just a small and tangible sign that it does.

Director Gary Gisselman’s production is a good one. And I was sorry that I was hasty in my judgement. In act one, Willie says, “I’m happy! I just look miserable!” It bothers me when a stranger on the street tells me to “smile!” I’m fine! Just because I might not always look it, I’m perfectly fine. Willie offered some lucid insight in this seemingly fleeting quip: appearances mean nothing.


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