Thoughts & Musings

Not So Simple Simon

There’s a laugh on every line, but there’s a lot more to this play than laughs. See for yourself.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 17th August 201617/08/16
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Sometimes audiences and critics get so caught up in Neil Simon’s caustic one-liners and witty repartee that they hardly notice the playwright has a heart. Some of Simon’s early plays like “Come Blow Your Horn” and “Barefoot in the Park,” both of which were commercial and critical successes, might give one the mistaken impression that Simon’s work is all about laughs. And he certainly knows how to get a laugh — without resorting to dropping F-bombs all over the stage.

When television was still in its infancy, Simon honed his comedic skills by writing gags and skits for Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers. His 1993 comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” tells the story of his early years working with a team of writers that included the legendary Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond. This team cranked out comedy bits by the boatload that had to work on TV and in front of a live studio audience. Early television comedy writing evolved naturally from the stage, particularly from the days of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.

In 2nd Story Theatre’s production of “The Sunshine Boys,” playing through Aug. 28 in Warren, Simon uses his gift for humor and his knowledge of burlesque to illuminate some matters of the heart when CBS tries to bring together an archetypal team of vaudeville comics for a tribute performance.

Willie (Bob Colonna) and Al (F. William Oakes) comprise The Sunshine Boys, a team that entertained audiences on stage for 43 years (1918-1961), until Al suddenly retired, leaving Willie without an act — and much more importantly, without a life.

Willie has languished in bitter solitude for 12 years, blaming Al for all his troubles and plotting a comeback in the movies, a new musical or even in commercials. Willie’s only contact with the outside world is through regular Wednesday visits from his nephew, Ben (Nicholas Thibeault), who also acts as his agent and brings him the latest edition of the trade magazine “Variety.”

Ben is the kind of nephew every uncle would love to have, and Thibeault plays him with humor, compassion, and a beautifully restrained sense of frustration. He is the perfect counterpoint to Willie’s insecurity and resultant cynicism. In spite of Willie’s many objections, Ben arranges for the team to reunite for the tribute show, performing one of their classic skits: “The Doctor’s Office.”

As the two old vaudeville hoofers, Colonna and Oakes are splendid. They sling caustic zingers at each other like a couple of gladiators exchanging blows with swords, but underneath they are both terrified by the notion that life has passed them by. Bitter humor is a poignant mask that Colonna and Oakes wear very well.

Making her 2nd Story debut is Lauren Ustaszewski, simply marvelous in the role of an actress playing a nurse whom Willie lampoons as a sex object in a classic “Sunshine Boys” skit.

Playing a real nurse to the ailing Willie is Susan Bowen Powers. This character has seen it all in her experience, and stands up to Willie’s taunts with the detached air of a professional medical practitioner. Her expertise seems to make Willie all the more vulnerable to his insecurities, fortifying Simon’s idea that Willie is just as human as anybody else.

“The Sunshine Boys” is classic Simon and great comedy—with a heart. Nobody more skillfully employs comedy as a vehicle to display human fragility, and people’s need for a connection to something outside themselves, than Neil Simon. There’s a laugh on every line, but there’s a lot more to this play than laughs. See for yourself.

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