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Let ‘The Sunshine Boys’ in

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BANGOR – Vaudeville is alive and well (well … sort of) on a local stage.

Ten Bucks Theatre Company is offering up their production of the Neil Simon comedy “The Sunshine Boys” at their theater space in the Bangor Mall. Directed by Ben Layman, the show runs through Oct. 20.

It’s a tale of a friendship gone sour, featuring a pair of stubborn men whose once-intimate connection is long in the past, courtesy of a number of slights both real and perceived. It’s about what a monumental task it can be to forgive (even if age has made it a little easier to forget). A love of show business can run deep, but deeper than a friendship?

Depends on the friend.

Lewis and Clark were once one of the preeminent acts on the vaudeville circuit. The iconic comedy duo spent over 40 years honing and performing a number of sketches that became major parts of the comedic canon. But that was a long time ago.

Willie Clark (Brent Hutchins) is living off his Social Security checks in a run-down hotel. He’s struggling with memory loss, though he has no trouble remembering his many, MANY old grudges. His niece Jen Silverman (Tamarra Strawn) – who is also his agent – looks in on him weekly, bringing him groceries and a copy of Variety. It has been ages since he worked; his memory struggles are now well-known throughout the industry.

But Jen has a proposition for her uncle, courtesy of the bigwigs at CBS. They’re planning a network special, a celebration of the history of comedy, from the earliest days right up through the present. They’d love for Willie to participate – but there’s a catch. He’d have to reunite with his old partner.

After plenty of flat-out denials followed by a fair amount of hemming and hawing, Willie agrees. And so Jen contacts Al Lewis (Ron Lisnet), who has been living with his daughter and her family in New Jersey. Al agrees to do the performance, and so rehearsals commence.

But it has been 11 years since Lewis and Clark shared the stage. And there are a lot of resentments still bubbling after all this time. Willie’s feelings of betrayal have had a long time to fester, while Al has little interest in apologizing for something he isn’t sorry about. When the rehearsals begin, there’s a whiff of the old magic, but the cantankerous couple simply can’t move beyond the past. Their anger and hurt is an obstacle, though it remains to be seen whether it is insurmountable.

Jen does her best to steer Lewis and Clark in the right direction, but even if she can get them into the studio, can she be sure that this powderkeg won’t explode? Can anyone? Will the old issues be put aside in the name of moving forward? Or will the past be paramount, the actions of a decade ago continuing to dictate the present?

“The Sunshine Boys” is an interesting script, one that both celebrates and criticizes the world of show business. There’s a clear affection for the entertainment realm, particularly the old-school comedians of the vaudeville stage. But there’s also an understanding that any creative pairing, no matter how successful or longstanding, can crumble due to different desires. The script does a great job of capturing the aftermath of such a crumbling, with the framework of a friendship still visible amongst the toxic ruins of Lewis and Clark’s relationship.

There’s a rhythm necessary to make a show like this one. A director has to be aware of that rhythm and capable of steering the ensemble into it, helping them find and maintain the snappy pacing and distinct cadence that comes with this kind of vaudeville-adjacent writing. Layman finds that rhythm, allowing his actors to be kinetic while also being unafraid to allow for some stillness; those moments of stillness serve as a nice counterpoint to the oft-frenetic dialogue.

As you might guess, “The Sunshine Boys” soars or sinks on the shoulders of the performances of its lead duo. Hutchins cranks the crankiness up to 11, shuffling and shouting his way across the stage. He leans into Willie’s anger, capturing the confusion that can come with growing old. Lisnet is the more reserved of the two, bringing a staidness to the proceedings that juxtaposes effectively with his brasher counterpart. There’s a quiet dignity there, even as circumstances unravel around him. The two of them have a good chemistry, a balanced energy to their time on the stage.

They aren’t alone, of course. Strawn endows Jen with a tight-lipped determination; she illustrates the reconciliation between her love for her uncle and her professional ambitions quite well. The rest of the ensemble – Sage Neptune, Katrina Dresser, Travis Baker, Deanna Rice and Bunny Barclay – all perform their duties as needed; it’s all hands on deck when we get to the TV studio and the controlled chaos of that moment is a testament to the skills of the cast.

Neil Simon is one of the most beloved American playwrights. “The Sunshine Boys” is a wonderful example of Simon’s comedic sensibilities, funny and frantic and full of winks and nods. It’s nice to see a show like this one grace an area stage; it’s another delightful evening at the theatre courtesy of the talented folks of Ten Bucks.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 16:49


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