Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Directed by Michael Serrecchia
Set Design – Rodney Dobbs
Costume Design – Clare Kapusta
Lighting Design – Jason Foster
Sound Design – Rich Frohlich
Property Design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Stage Manager – Zoelyn Copeland
R. Bruce Elliott – Willie Clark
Don Alan Croll– Al Lewis
Ben Bryant – Ben Silverman
Michael Speck – Director/Patient
Ryan Thomas – Eddie
Kim Borge – Skit Nurse
Lyn Williams – Registered Nurse
All photos by GEORGE WADA
Reviewed Performance 9/21/2013
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What do you get when you put an infinitely humorous vision of two old geezers fighting over long-hidden resentments with an endless supply of one-liners and comedic timing? You get Neil Simon’s 1972 Broadway hit, The Sunshine Boys,the story of a famous vaudeville pair, Lewis and Clark, who haven’t talked for twelve years, reuniting for a CBS TV special about the history of comedy. Add two accomplished local actors and a talented production crew at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and you get to see The Sunshine Boys in its best tradition. As written in the Director’s Notes by Michael Serrecchia, “Neil Simon plays … are performed somewhere in the world every day of the year.” The Sunshine Boys shows why.
This play premiered on Broadway in 1972 and ran 540 performances, featuring Sam Levene as Lewis and Jack Albertson as Clark. In 1975 a film adaptation saw George Burns as Lewis and Walter Matthau as Clark. Burns won the Oscar. The Broadway play was revived in 1997 for 242 performances with Jack Klugman as Willie and Tony Randall as Al and that same year it was adapted for TV starring Woody Allen and Peter Falk.
CTD, as they frequently call themselves, presents this show as the final show of their season and a tribute to the late Jerry Russell, who was originally cast in the play. Michael Serrecchia put together an outstanding group and put the show on a good footing with fast-paced comedic timing and a great design.
I am often interested in actors who step into a role as a replacement. It’s a challenge to replace another actor and even more to replace an icon like Jerry Russell. So I want to begin with Don Alan Croll as the old vaudeville actor, Al Lewis. With credits from Broadway, TV, voiceover, commercials, and stage, he has the chops. When he entered in the second scene, he was visually perfect for this role. His look, walk, voice and mannerisms told everything about the character before a line was spoken. As the easy-going vaudeville actor of the two, Lewis plays straight man to Willie Clark’s barbs. Croll did this with the comedic timing of a pro and we immediately identified with him as a lovable curmudgeon rather than a cantankerous old man.
Lewis is countered by the strong personality of Willie Clark. The vitriol required by this character needs a strong actor to keep it real and that’s R. Bruce Elliott. With 40-years of acting for stage, film, and TV, Elliott showed an innate sense of the timing required by Neil Simon’s rapid-fire dialog. Elliott is required to be cantankerous, even vicious, with almost every line. But into this intensity, he allowed Clark to show a glimmer of tenderness for his life-long partner and his nephew. The result was wild laughter and forgiveness for his outrageous statements.
The reunion between these two old enemies is facilitated by Clark’s nephew and struggling agent, Ben Silverman. This character is played by Ben Bryant as a young, frustrated mediator between two forces of nature, like two tornados fighting for the same trailer park. As the bridge between two warring artists, Bryant gave his Silverman a mix of patience and adoration at the same time he expressed the frustration in trying to keep them together.
Kim Borge plays a buxom “actress” hired by Silverman to play a nurse in the old vaudeville act. Dressed as the quintessential short and sexy white costume, Borge had to show the gullibilityof a “dumb blonde” while being exploited by Clark. Borge played the over-the-top character without being an over-the-top actor.
Three other supporting parts help tell this story. Michael Speck as the CBS director and stand-in patient for the doctor skit; Ryan Thomas as Eddie, the CBS TV assistant; and Lyn Williams as a real nurse hired to take care of Willie Clark, all had short cameo parts, but each used their minutes of stage time to help us see Lewis and Clark from alternate perspectives. Speck and Thomas showed an appropriate adulation for the aged stars with an equally appropriate frustration while trying to get them to work together. The one slow-down in the play was the bedroom scene where Clark is cared for by the “real” nurse. Whether by design or actor experience, there was a clear difference in the rapid timing of one-liners by Elliott and the slow responses by Williams. She did show a ballsy nature in having the nurse stand up to the cruelty of Clark, but Williams’ faster comebacks with some great one-liners of her own can make that scene as funny as the rest.
The Sunshine Boys’ set was designed by Rodney Dobbs. Most of the play is in Willie Clark’s cheap hotel room. A short TV rehearsal scene played in front of a drop-down scrim shows a doctor’s office with cheesy graphics from the old vaudeville act, but then scenes shifted back to the hotel room. Within this simple set, there were a huge number of household and vaudeville act props found and designed by Jen Gilson-Gilliam. Simple lighting by Jason Foster and sound effects by Rich Frohlich helped fill the atmosphere. Frohlich used a soundtrack of familiar songs from the 70’s by what could’ve been a Herb Alpert elevator music source.
Costumes were designed by Clare Kapusta. From a cheap housecoat and pajamas for Willie Clark to Al Lewis’ well-tailored suits, plus cheesy nurse and doctor costumes for the TV sketch, including hilarious hairpieces worn by the two old men, Kapusta really got into the spirit of Neil Simonwith her choices and they added to the humor.
The strength of a Neil Simon comedy is found in its laughter. The Sunshine Boys has mild humor throughout, but when Lewis and Clark reunited and then tried to rehearse their old skit, I laughed until I couldn’t breathe and I was not alone. R. Bruce Elliott and Don Alan Croll were a scream together, literally, and made a great comedic team. My 20-year old daughter whispered during the rehearsal scene, “That looks like grandma and grandpa sometimes.” Yes!
We don’t know how this production might have changed with Jerry Russell in the role, but this is a fitting tribute to him and a great final show for Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Somewhere up there, Jerry Russell is laughing his butt off. I know I was.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
5601 Sears Street, Dallas, TX 75206
Plays through October 13th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday - Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Main floor tickets are $32.00; Balcony tickets are $27.00. Senior tickets are
$27.00 and $22.00, respectively.
For information and tickets visit http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com/
or call (214) 828-0094.