When Jerry Lewis passed away Aug. 20, the complicated actor-filmmaker-comedian was hailed as the “King of Comedy” in many of the stories about his life and work.
But another man could just as easily claim that crown: playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, born 90 years ago on the Fourth of July.
The author of nearly three dozen plays and almost as many screenplays, Simon has a Broadway theater named for him, a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards and, in a career spanning six decades, more combined Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer.
Over time, critics and audiences came to appreciate Simon’s ability to infuse even riotously funny work with a consideration of more serious themes: alcoholism, divorce, aging and more. His 1972 play “The Sunshine Boys,” running at Stage Door Theatre in Margate through late September, demonstrates Simon’s craftsmanship in scoring big laughs while conveying an underlying melancholy.
Staged by Michael Leeds with heart and deft comedic flourishes, “The Sunshine Boys” tells the story of the once-great comedy duo Al Lewis (Peter Librach) and Willie Clark (Michael H. Small). Dating back to the vaudeville era, the team survived into the age of TV variety shows — until one day, abruptly, Al informed Willie that he was retiring. In the 11 years since, the two haven’t spoken, with Willie struggling to find work as an actor.
Then, his nephew-agent Ben Silverman (Ben Sandomir) stops by Willie’s cluttered old hotel room with his weekly delivery of groceries, forbidden cigars and the show-biz paper Variety. This time, though, Ben has also brought an opportunity: Willie can appear on a big TV special celebrating the golden age of comedy. The catch? He has to perform a classic Lewis and Clark sketch with his former partner.
Willie, a master at the not-so-subtle art of kvetching, won’t hear of it. He complains that Al would deliberately spit in his face, choosing words starting with “T” (the better to spray him with), and that he would poke Willie so hard with his finger that he’d leave bruises on Willie’s chest.
But Ben knows that for Willie, with his fading memory, health issues and dwindling resources, the TV gig represents a last chance for a return to the limelight. So Ben pushes his stubborn uncle, and eventually we get a taste of the old Lewis and Clark magic — first hilariously, then disastrously.
Director Leeds has the ideal Willie in Small, who expertly conveys the aging comedian’s cantankerousness, likability and fears. He and the lower-key Librach confidently ride the rhythms of Simon’s dialogue, evoking vaudeville, TV sketch comedy and, yes, vintage Neil Simon. Sandomir gives a lovely performance as the warm, often-exasperated Ben, and as his contortions during a phone call demonstrate, he more than holds his own when it comes to physical comedy.
The lead trio get able support from actors in much smaller roles: Elijah Pearson-Martinez as the nervous TV assistant director Eddie, George Schiavone as the patient in Lewis and Clark’s sketch, Jeanine Gangloff as the eye-candy nurse in the sketch, Vicki Klein as a real nurse who’s every bit as testy as Willie.
Set designer Michael McClain and prop designer Larry Bauman have created a claustrophobic, old-fashioned, poster-bedecked domain for Willie. Lighting designer Ardean Landhuis gets the murkiness of Willie’s digs and the bright lights of the TV world just right, and Paul O’Donnell adds to the comedy with a few deliberately late sound effects. Costume designer Jerry Sturdefant gets the period right, but his one big miss is the pointedly sexy nurse outfit for Gangloff: It doesn’t fit her right.
Although “The Sunshine Boys” doesn’t quite rise to the level of Simon gems such as “The Odd Couple” or his late-career “Brighton Beach” trilogy, its consideration of the problems that come with aging is poignant and all too true. Tempering those truths with laughter is, as many in the Stage Door audience know firsthand, a good thing.
“The Sunshine Boys” runs through Sept. 24 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, in Margate. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $48. To order, call 954-344-7765 or go to StageDoorFl.org.