Rick Mason as Al Lewis and Dennis Wickline as Willie Clark in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys. " Photo: Broadway Onstage Live Theatre

'Boys Will Be Boys' In American Comedy Classic

By John Quinn

The Critic's first love was not the theater, but a 1949 Admiral television. Sid Caesar's death Feb. 12 brought on a wave of nostalgia for a time a family, even the toddlers, could watch a series like "Your Show of Shows" and be delighted by his blend of sophisticated humor with sheer slapstick. But few people read the credits, and I only recently discovered that the wealth of writing talent on his team included such luminaries as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon.

Ah, yes, Neil Simon! He's one of the most honored writers in stage, screen and television. There's never a dull moment in a Simon play, and a visit to Eastpointe's Broadway Onstage Live Theatre only confirms that. Company founder Dennis Wickline teams up with Rick Mason as the title characters in Simon's 1972 Broadway hit, "The Sunshine Boys."

The comedy team of Lewis and Clark, the "Sunshine Boys," was the toast of vaudeville for over 40 years. A tribute to the duo (voiced here by local radio legend Paul W. Smith) notes, "Lewis without Clark is like laughter without joy." Well, Willie Clark (Wickline) has been without Al Lewis (Mason) for 11 years, not since Al suddenly announced his retirement after a performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." It's now 1972, and Willie resides in a Manhattan hotel that's seen better days. His nephew/agent, Ben (John Arden McClure), arrives with an opportunity. CBS is producing a series on the history of comedy, and wants to feature a classic skit by Lewis and Clark. The catch - 40 years together resulted in a mutual hate. Any reunion is going to be a powder keg, and Willie and Al are both holding matches.

Simon is a master of comic structure, and actors in his works need to be masters of timing. In directing his title characters, Christopher Oakley has taken the basic chemistry apparent between Wickline and Mason and hit the right timing for a vaudeville team. Once the pace recovers from a few stumbles in the first part of the second scene, the rapid-fire insults and strained emotions flesh out one of the playwright's recurring themes: relations between men are competitive.

The supporting cast is generally in sync with the leads, especially Broadway Onstage regular Sharron Nelson as a generously endowed actress hired to play a nurse in the Doctor sketch. The character is the stereotypical blonde countering a lecherous employer; effectively playing sexy and dumb requires acting techniques drawn from vaudeville and even burlesque. Nelson adds just the right amount of the risque.

One might note that the curmudgeons agree on at least one thing: Rehearsal is everything. That curtain call could use a few more run-throughs.

The squabbling between Lewis and Clark does indeed involve both laughter and joy. Simon, like the other writers of his generation, grounded their material in character and situation, without relying on the current kick, shock comedy. The difference is remarkable. I read this quote from Sid Caesar referenced at the time of his passing: "The things I see now on TV and movies are so outlandish. Kids doing rude things with pies! And the language they use! It's being outrageous for the sake of being outrageous I can't watch it ..." If any of you out there are plagued with 150 TV channels and nothing worth watching, take a hint from the Encore Michigan slogan, "We'll see you at the theater!"

'The Sunshine Boys'

Broadway Onstage Live Theatre, 21517 Kelly Road, Eastpointe. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through March 22. 1 hour, 50 minutes. $18. 586-771-6333. http://www.broadwayonstage.com

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