Kenneth Welsh & Eric Peterson. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas
Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is a very funny play and it provides a couple doses of nostalgia. One dose is decidedly a borrowed one and the other is perhaps a real memory for many people. Soulpepper has revived this 1972 play for its summer season in a very good production.
The play is about Willie (Eric Peterson) and Al (Kenneth Welsh), two vaudeville comedians who performed sketches for 43 years. That was during the great age of American comedy or so we are told. We are quite willing to accept that verdict and enjoy a bit of borrowed nostalgia about an era and a mode of entertainment that is long gone.
The play was produced forty years ago and one may find some truth in saying that they don’t make them like they used to. You can say that about the product of any old master (Simon is now 85) and look back to the good old days even if they were not that good or are that old. Those old enough may wish to remember the good old days.
The Sunshine Boys pays tribute to vaudeville by bringing together two crotchety vaudevillians who hate each other. Eric Peterson as Willie hates his former partner because he used to spit in his face during performances and poked him with his finger. Now he lives alone in a small apartment in New York and is still looking for work. Peterson is a first rate actor and he does a terrific job in the role.
Kenneth Walsh as Al is more humane and tolerant than Willie. He is not bitter and any chance of reconciliation is bound to come from him. Walsh is a perfect foil for Peterson’s Willie and he does superb work in the role.
The catalyst for the action is Willie’s nephew Ben (Jordan Pettle) who tries to bring the two men together to perform one of their sketches for television.
There are two nurses in the play. One is the mythical, gorgeous blonde (Sarah Wilson) who has big breasts and leans over for Willie (and the audience) to stare at her “back”. Well, Wilson has the requisite attributes and gets the laughs as the dumb blonde.
The other nurse is the far more realistic, no-nonsense caregiver played by Quancetia Hamilton. She may not have Wilson’s physical attributes but she is a very funny actor who gets her laughs.
Pettle plays an agent, decked in a three-piece suit, who is desperately trying to deal with his irascible and irrational uncle and tries to get them to rehearse for their TV appearance.
The play is directed by Ted Dykstra and although it gets most of the laughs it falls short of an inspired production that instigates instant howls of laughter. I mean the type of hilarity that the audience anticipates and bursts out almost instantaneously.
You do get a taste of vaudeville of long, long ago, a smidgeon of more recent New York, some timeless and some dated humour and a good night at the theatre.
The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon opened on July 26 and will continue until September 22, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.