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Gag Reflex: "The Sunshine Boys" at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 21 February 2006 18:00
Let me preface my review of the Richmond Hill Players’ The Sunshine Boys by saying that if the material itself makes you laugh, you may well be a fan of this production, and at Thursday’s opening-night performance, there were quite a few laughers among us.

I, however, wasn’t one of them.

Before sitting down to view Neil Simon’s relentless comedy – and I don’t mean that as a compliment – involving two aging vaudevillians who reunite for a TV special, I was informed that, if I wanted the best view of the on-stage action, I should secure a seat on the left-hand side of the theatre; all of Richmond Hill’s shows are performed in the round – more of a rectangle, actually – and the seats upstairs and to the left were, apparently, the best ones for this particular production. (“Otherwise,” I was told, “you’ll see a lot of backs.”)

I followed the instruction, and the seat I chose was, indeed, a good one, allowing me to enjoy both the cleverness of director Tom Morrow’s staging and the often amusing facial expressions of leading performers Ray Rogers and John VanDeWoestyne; I saw very few backs. And I was especially grateful to have interesting things to look at because, with Neil Simon’s comic sledgehammer whacking us on the head every few beats, anything that took my mind off the dialogue for a few seconds felt like a blessing. The Sunshine Boys is a vaudeville routine that runs two-and-a-quarter hours, and watching it, you understand why vaudeville routines are meant to run some two hours shorter than that.

Let me be clear that the fault with this Sunshine Boys has nothing to do with Richmond Hill’s presentation of it; if anything, Morrow and several of the actors make the script play better than it deserves to. But for those of us who find the incessant banter – the hostility posing as wit – of Simon’s early work more exhausting than amusing, the show is a tedious slog: set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline … and so it goes for The Sunshine Boys’ entire length.

This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if Simon’s jokes were funny, but instead, they’re maddeningly obvious, and the clunky vaudeville patter that Simon has created for Willie Clark (Rogers) and Al Lewis (VanDeWoestyne) – the material that was supposed to make the characters’ stage act the stuff of legend – is indistinguishable from the rest of the clunky patter in The Sunshine Boys. By the end of the show, my head was throbbing from the sounds of Simon. You know that feeling you get when someone begins telling you a joke, and you smile, but the joke goes on and on, and you continue smiling, and still it goes on, and you’re too polite to stop smiling even though you aren’t the least bit amused? That’s The Sunshine Boys.

In Richmond Hill’s production, the reason that you’re smiling at all is because of the leading performers. Ray Rogers is stuck in a noxious, kvetching role; Clark treats everyone around him horribly, yet Simon, it seems, means for us to find his irascibility charming. It’s to Rogers’ immense credit that we occasionally do. (We’re told in the script – twice – that “Lewis without Clark is like laughter without joy,” which is odd, because I always thought Lewis without Clark would be joy.) And John VanDeWoestyne, who was such a sensational Tevye in Quad City Music Guild’s Fiddler on the Roof last summer, plays incredulity and exasperation with convincing deadpan, and he pulls off terrific vocal tricks, his pitch dropping when you expect it to rise and vice versa – VanDeWoestyne’s readings are far funnier than the words he’s been given to say.

Although you never really get a sense of the duo as the trailblazing comic team they’re supposed to be – you buy them as estranged friends but not, unfortunately, as show-biz partners – they seem comfortable with their rapport, and Morrow gives them entertaining bits of physical business; the duo’s attempts to set the stage for their vaudeville bit by moving two chairs and a table with excruciating slowness and precision is a great, goofy throwaway, and probably my favorite moment in the production.

What helped the scene, of course, was that, for a few brief moments, we didn’t have to endure Simon’s dialogue. I wish The Sunshine Boys had more scenes just like it.

Tickets to The Sunshine Boys are available by calling (309)944-2244.
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