It is an awe-inspiring spectacle to witness more than 600 occupants of Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art in silent wonder. Hushed, enchanted, and utterly captive to the drab one-bedroom apartment set before them, where two obdurate has-been performers go to war with one another’s eccentricities. This is the power that writer Neil Simon possesses in his pen. To completely conquer hearts and minds through a play that was first performed more than 40 years ago, and to master the union of drama and comedy through his production “The Sunshine Boys”.
One of the most touted theater agencies in the state, The Arizona Theatre Company has added “The Sunshine Boys” to its 2013-2014 production season. Through March 23, Tucson audiences can view the ATC’s production, supported by a cast of both veterans and newcomers as they tell Neil Simon’s beloved story that first broke into Broadway in 1972.
Experienced stage actors David Green and Peter Van Norden head the team of performers as Al Lewis and Willie Clark, former Vaudevillian partners of over 40 years who have not spoken in a decade. As a former team, they were once the acclaimed act Lewis and Clark, a comic duo that enraptured thousands with their brilliant slapstick skits. According to a reminiscent Clark, the team of two operated as one entity, perfectly synchronized and in tune with one another’s on point delivery. Much to Clark’s dismay, Lewis abruptly called it quits after his first poor performance, leading to a severe detachment of former friends. Now an irritable old hermit, Clark is quick to deny his nephew/agent’s request of having Lewis and Clark perform one final time on CBS. Though loathing of his former partner, Clark is finally convinced to perform at his side, if only out of spite and for monetary purposes. With both parties in agreement, the true task at hand becomes placing them in a room without having them rip at each other’s throats as they embark on one final voyage filled with lessons on the realities of show business, friendship, and their own mortality.
“The Sunshine Boys” differs from additional Neil Simon works with similar themes such as The Odd Couple. While The Odd Couple depicts two men of opposite personalities who subsequently learn that they have partially benefited from their differences, “The Sunshine Boys” accounts two men who though seemingly different, are in fact internally similar. Their Vaudeville performances were successes because they were one on stage. Their ability to bounce dialogue and actions back and forth in perfect rhythm was unmatched, and gained fan adoration for four decades. However, as physics has taught us, opposites attract and likeness repels.
If the ultimate test of successful and long lasting theater is to make the audience laugh, then writer Neil Simon succeeds with “The Sunshine Boys”. But if the ultimate test is to make that same audience feel sympathy, even sorrow, then Simon triumphs. The fundamental desires of playwrights are to make the audience feel what the characters are feeling; their joys, victories, defeats, fears, and deepest grief. In “The Sunshine Boys”, the audience meets a pair of antiquated performers who are struggling with the fleeting nature of both show business and existence, and they truly begin to feel these themes hit close to home.
Simon and the Arizona Theatre Company have brought a beautiful story about the paradigm of time and companionship to Tucson. And within the walls of the Temple of Music and Art, audiences can witness that profound story, in all its thematic depth, unfold through the lives of two stubborn old mules named Lewis and Clark.
After Tucson, the play will move on to a Phoenix theater.