“As an actor, no one could touch him. As a human being, no one would want to touch him.”
With these words, Neil Simon defines the characters of Willie Clark and Al Lewis in The Sunshine Boys, playing through March 22 in the Village Players Theater.
Jim Rudes plays Willie, and the words are his, referring to his former vaudeville partner, Al, played by Don Weber. In the hands of these two veteran actors, the characters become accessible rather than simply nasty, a fine line that has been crossed by less adept performers.
Simon fills The Sunshine Boys with one-liners that require a fine sense of timing and body language to enhance the humor and make the characters sympathetic and recognizable as uncles, neighbors, friends - someone most of us can relate to - rather than one-dimensional caricatures.
Willie is an irascible old man who lives in a depressing set of rooms in an old hotel on upper Broadway. He spends his days watching television and slowly withdrawing from life. He is visited once a week by Benny Silverman (Denise Brown), who brings him soup, supplies, his beloved trade newspaper Variety, and, much against her will, a few cigars. Benny - “short for Bernice,” she explains later - is not only Willie's only living relative, she is his agent and a target for his disparaging comments about her inability to get him work.
Benny usually protests that the word is out that Willie is unreliable and can't remember his lines, but today she has news: CBS is doing a big comedy retrospective and wants Willie to be on it. Unfortunately, it wants Willie's former partner, Al Lewis, too.
Willie says no. Emphatically. He wants no part of Al Lewis. The team of Lewis and Clark, the Sunshine Boys, is dead.
But as Benny argues, Willie begins to cave in. He still doesn't want to see Al, but it's a job, it's work, it's the reason he exists and the industry he loves. And the money would be nice, too. He agrees to one rehearsal.
When first we meet Al, he seems, well, normal. But he, too, has a wicked wit and can hold his own against the onslaught of Willie's wrath.
One can watch The Sunshine Boys and see nothing more than the story of two crabby old men. But with talented performers such as Rudes and Weber, it becomes a recognizable snapshot of any long-term relationship
Both have a store of grudges from which they draw energy, and the vitriol is even more intense - and sad - because we know that the two men love each other ... they just don't like each other much.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't nearly as good as Rudes and Weber. On opening night, Brown and Kate Argow as a nurse kept fluffing their lines. They recovered, but the nervousness or lack of preparation was noticeable and, after awhile, annoying.
On the other hand, Rudes and Weber are on stage the bulk of the time, and their performances are perfectly prepared, exquisitely timed, and well worth watching.
“The Sunshine Boys” runs through March 22 at the Village Players Theater, 2740 Upton Ave. Performances are 8 p.m. today, tomorrow, March 21, and 22, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, from the box office, 419-472-6817.