REVIEW: The Sunshine Boys (James Downing Theatre)

Finding the heart behind the sun



The James Downing Theatre presents
The Sunshine Boys
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Dave Downing & Ron Denham
John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through October 3rd  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I love vaudeville. I grew up watching the old movies that featured vaudeville people like Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, and Bob Hope. There was an art to the timing and I still giggle when I hear ‘hello ladies and germs’.

As the stars of vaudeville have faded into obscurity, I developed another fascination with what were their lives like and where are they now. The James Downing Theatre production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys shines some light onto a fictional duo from vaudeville.

The main characters of Al Lewis and Willie Clark are stock Neil Simon characters. They are woven into American pop culture straight from the vaudeville tradition. Scott Minches plays the role of Willie Clark. Minches has the perfect visage of an old crotchety and bitter man, and he manages to bring humor to a man who’s beginning to suffer from dementia. The character of Clark lives for show business and still reads Variety every week – only now it’s to read obituaries. Iconic stars such as Jack Klugman and Walter Matthau who have made a career out of gruff cigar chomping slobs have played this role. Minches manages to not shadow them too much and still fit Simon’s script quite well. Slobs are broad comedy in and of themselves. Minches brings out the beautiful and sad human side to Willie Clark as a lonely old man.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Manny Schenk is quite amazing as Al Lewis. Tony Randall has done the role of persnickety straight man most famously. Mr. Schenk plays Lewis with a deceptive gentleman’s dignity. He really makes Lewis his own, which is quite a feat considering that he also follows George Burns in this role.

Minches and Schenk play well off of each other. Their timing is impeccable, and the simmering bitterness builds to a perfect boil in the comeback sketch.

Terry Maloney plays the role of Clark’s nephew Ben Silverman. He is also Clark’s very frustrated agent who takes a weekly berating when he visits his uncle. Maloney plays this role a bit too broadly. I would love to see him as the scrambling ‘ten percenter’ determined to get something out of this weekly beating. Instead he’s allowed allowed no comic nuance; he’s basically has one note-frustration.

The best part of this show is definitely Act Two. Lewis and Clark reunite to do a classic skit and it really is funny, recreating visual puns and one- liners that cry out for a rim shot from the band. This skit also features Valerie Heckman as “Nurse”. Ms. Heckman is spot on as the screwball sexy nurse being ogled by Clark. Heckman really shines in a brief role.

Also featured in the second act is Ashley Boots as the home nurse for Clark. Ms. Boots plays the classic New Yorker. She bounces the barbs right back at Clark while eating chocolates and fluffing pillows. Boots has a hilariously affected New York accent. To paraphrase Clark’s character, some words are funny. ‘Nurse’ is not funny, but ‘noyss’ is hilarious when Boots says it.

Mark Kroon is briefly seen as the stage manager for the reunion show. It’s a good moment as he portrays exhaustion and frustration with trying to keep the rehearsal running on time. Kroon has a classic face seemingly pulled right out of a Neil Simon comedy.

The production could use some tweaks in the first act with the rhythm of the dialogue and in the way Minches and Maloney play off of each other. The props are perfect and look like they came right out of an old Montgomery Ward store – the apartment setting as a character unto itself. A formerly grand hotel turned into a down on the heels SRO is harder than it looks to pull off.  It is done beautifully.

The Sunshine Boys is definitely good entertainment and worth seeing. The great Northwest Side is a hidden trove of culture. Check it out!

Rating: ★★★


The Sunshine Boys runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 3rd, 2010. Be forewarned that it is a long trek by public transit and bring cab fare in case you miss the last Northwest Highway bus. There are some cool pubs and restaurants to make a night of things and enjoy yet another side of Chicago!

The production, directed by Dave Downing & Ron Denham, includes cast members: Manny Schenk as Al Lewis, Scott Minches as Willie Clark and Terry Maloney as Willie’s nephew, Ben. Ashley Boots, Valerie Heckman and Mark Kroon round out the talented cast. Lighting and sound design is by Steve Kedzierski. Costume and prop design is by Ashley Boots. Set design is by Joshua Dlouhy. The stage manager is Mary Schenk.

REVIEW: The Odd Couple (Raven Theatre)


Oddly Uninspiring



Raven Theatre presents
The Odd Couple
written by Neil Simon
directed by
Michael Menendian
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through July 18th  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Oscar is messy. Felix is tidy. Oscar is brash. Felix is meek. Oscar likes gambling and cigars. Felix likes cooking and vacuuming. They’re both divorcees. They live together. They’re not gay.

If you pitched this as a show concept to a modern-day television executive, he’d either laugh you out of his office or option it as the next banal reality TV show. Either way, the idea would be seen as too simplistic and naïve for a contemporary television Ladleaudience. And that’s saying a lot, considering this is the same audience that demanded 11 seasons of “7th Heaven”.

But back in 1965, this is exactly what constituted good theatre. That’s when Neil Simon’s acclaimed The Odd Couple—featuring the slovenly Oscar and the uptight Felix–premiered on Broadway, garnering that year’s Tony for Best Play. In fact, it was such a hit that it ran for 966 performances, took a leap to the big screen in 1968, jumped to the small screen in 1970, went animated in 1975 and was revived for television once more in 1982. Now, the Raven Theatre Company, known for taking cracks at classics, is doing its own production.

The Raven’s version is utter slapstick. Characters speak with Ralph Kramden growls and nasal newsreel voices. Their movements and reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. When a scene calls for the emotion of surprise, the actors look as if they’re trying to pop their eyes out of their sockets. At one point, a character actually runs face first into a door when trying to stop a despondent Felix from going into the bathroom alone.

I assume it was director Michael Menendian’s vision to do a live-action cartoon version of The Odd Couple, and unfortunately, the outcome is a terrible miscalculation. The play–which already struggles to connect with an audience who are more surprised to see a marriage last rather than end in divorce—comes off as vapid, void of any real meaning whatsoever. It’s like the tragedy that has befallen Felix (Jon Steinhagen) is one big joke. And we get no sense of Oscar’s (Eric Roach) own unresolved marital issues except for his messy condo, which is a parallel for his messy life. Instead, Menendian has reduced the story to a one-joke pony that keeps begging to be laughed at. Sure, at first it deserves a chuckle, but by the end it’s just kind of desperate.

To their credit the cast is spectacular in their respective roles, even if the final outcome is damaged by misguided direction. Roach toes the line with Oscar, portraying him as a slob but a fun slob. This is a guy who’s a borderline hoarder, but he’s also a wild and crazy guy.

Steinhagen’s portrayal of Felix is a good balance to Oscar’s party-animal stereotype. He’s reserved, slightly effeminate and deeply emotional–or at least an emotional wreck, which is more than can be said about Oscar who takes a much more cavalier approach to his failed marriage.


In the end, Raven Theatre lost an opportunity to give a fresh take on this well-worn classic. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Menendian take up the task of providing this fairly hollow play with some real emotional depth. Rather than take the easy slapstick route, why not venture on that high road and make the actors bring some realism to their roles? Let’s see The Odd Couple as a dark comedy for once. After all, is this not a play about two men whose marriages have fallen apart, whose families have been torn from them due to their own negligence? If it truly is a funny show, the humor should still shine through despite a graver tone.

Still, there will always be an audience for schlock like this. Some people just don’t want to see something thought provoking or culturally relevant. Some people just want a show with uncomplicated laughs and a simple plot with characters as three-dimensional as a piece of construction paper. For those people, The Odd Couple will work just fine.

Rating: ★★

Performances continue through July 18: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm (No show July 4)


Cast: Greg Caldwell, Larry Carani, Brigitte Ditmars, Liz Fletcher, Greg Kolack, Eric Roach, Jon Steinhagen, Anthony Tournis

Creative Team:   Michael Menendian (Director), Amy Lee (Light Design), Katherine M. Chavez (Sound Design), Ray Toler (Set Design),  JoAnn Montemurro (Costume Design), Cathy Bowren (Stage Manager), Dean LaPrairie (Photographer)


REVIEW: Lost in Yonkers (Village Players)

Two brothers zing Simon’s show


Village Players Theater presents:

Lost in Yonkers


Written by Neil Simon
Directed by
Brian Rabinowitz
Thru February 21st (more info)

By Katy Walsh

Living on top of a candy store is every kid’s dream – unless the shop is owned by a tyrannical grandmother! yonkers2Set in the early 1940’s, Neil Simon’s Purlitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play is a coming-of-age story about two teenagers forced to live with their cruel grandma for a year. When financial complications require their father to take a job on the road, Arty and Jay leave the Bronx for Yonkers. Sleeping on the pull-out couch, the boys live in the 2 bedroom dictator world with their grandma as supreme leader. Making family life a little more pleasant and weirder, they get to know their crazy Aunt Bella, con artist Uncle Eddie and strange Aunt Gert. Playwright Neil Simon is the master for portraying family dysfunction in a comical manner, and in Lost in Yonkers, the two young boys’ antics lead family members to face their past destructive patterns.

Under the direction of Brian Rabinowitz, Andrew Raia (Jay) and Jake Walczyk (Arty) are fantastic as the brothers. Their onstage chemistry makes the relationship bond seem real. Raia’s Bronx accent is the best in the cast. Whether his sulking on the couch or challenging his grandma, his timing is authentic and flawless. Walczyk’s delivers some of Simon’s best zingers. The comedy is heightened for extra laughs from this pint size messenger with a big attitude. As Grandma, Deanna Norman’s presence alone on stage is disapproving and threatening. Add in the character’s severe child raising practices, Norman makes anyone squirm in their seat.

yonkersThe most demanding part in the show is the role of Bella. A woman incapacitated by mental illness and her mother’s hold, the role requires a combination of child-like innocence, a woman’s romantic desires, and neurotic outbursts. Stephanie Ganacolpos does a fine, but not consistent, job of hitting all these elements sporadically throughout the show.

Designed by Annette Vargas, the set is that of an apartment in Yonkers that’s seen better years. In the first scene, the audience learns how particular grandma is about the doilies on the couch – with this realization, however, the sloppy wallpaper seems a little too imperfect for grandma’s home. Bella’s wardrobe also malfunctions after grandma throws a cup of tea on her. The tea results in Bella displaying distracting wet stains on her cotton dress in the next scene. The costumes by Emma Weber add a layer of understanding of the time period, especially Arty’s short pants. Under Weber’s guidance suits, ties, and dresses rule the day – there are no casual comforts. It’s hard to imagine today’s teenage boys wearing suits and ties in an un-air conditioned apartment.

Although taking place more than a half of century ago, Lost in Yonkers has timeless themes of family dynamics, teenage rebellion, and financial struggles. It’s a perfect show to escape and compare family war wounds. If nothing else, go to see the beginnings of the brilliant stage careers of Andrew Raia and Jake Walczyk.


Rating: ★★★



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