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.