“Anything that can be made funny must have at its heart some tragic implications.” No, that’s not Neil Simon but rather Karl Menninger, the celebrated psychiatrist. Mel Brooks, Neil Simon’s colleague in youth, put it another way: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die.”
And that’s why Neil Simon wrote The Sunshine Boys, a play filled with loneliness, fear and bitter resentment. It is such sour raw material that laughter is made of. A welcome revival is now on the floorboards through April 23 at Central New York Playhouse’s Shoppingtown venue.
The Sunshine Boys, which opened in 1972, remains one of Simon’s best-regarded and most widely translated works. In part that’s because it has two juicy roles, one of which earned an Academy Award for George Burns after a 36-year screen absence for the 1975 movie version.
Veteran local players Bill Coughlin and Ed Mastin have reportedly been thinking about taking on these roles for quite some time, a contention supported by the thoughtfulness and precision of their presentations. Aging also brings them closer to their characters.
When Sunshine Boys was written, the heady days of vaudeville sketch comedy were still within living memory, so it seemed entirely plausible that network television might want to record a landmark act from four or five decades previous. The putative models for Simon’s comedians, Smith and Dale, did indeed appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, itself a showcase for vintage vaudeville. They were lifelong pals, however, who always supported one another.
So Simon had to invent the irascible team of Lewis and Clark, who have not seen each other in 11 years. They are to be reunited so that cultural history can be recorded and preserved.
Simon’s intention, well-served by director Korrie Taylor, is to make dyspeptic Willie Clark (Bill Coughlin) disagreeable. Alone and forgotten in his shabby, untidy apartment, Willie is the embodiment of incivility. We see him first through the eyes of his patient-to-a-fault and supportive nephew Ben Silverman (Michal Lepore).
Along with abusing Ben, who attempts to get him into commercials for which he is unsuited, Willie insults Ben’s father and conspicuously misremembers the names of his children. Willie pleads in his defense, “I’ve got a great face for an upset stomach commercial.”
Coughlin brings many assets to his portrayal of Willie, including his arthritic body set and his prematurely bald pate, but nothing beats his commanding speaking voice. There’s a bracing hardness to it, like the crack of two teak planks against one another. Although the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) winner is so versatile he once played a mumbling Mafia thug, Coughlin has been ideal for authoritarian, repressive fathers and hard-ass military officers. Adapting effortlessly to Willie’s Borscht Belt rhythms and intonations, Coughlin’s jibes cut deep with a dash of brine.
As Willie dominates the first act, we’re ready for the change of pace brought by Ed Mastin’s Al Lewis. This is the role for which George Burns won his Oscar, all slow takes and delayed reactions. According to the script, Al has retired to exurban comfort with his daughter in New Jersey, presumably softening his urban edge. Mastin, who has whitened his naturally black eyebrows with powder, creeps in like a senile teddy bear, anything but the ogre Willie has been telling us about.
Coughlin and Mastin put themselves to the test when their Willie and Al, each in ludicrous toupees, recreate their classic “Doctor is In” skit, a farrago of heavy-handed wordplay and burlesque. Lusty but game Jennie Russo is spot-on as the panties-exposing Naughty Nurse in the routine. Their skit-within-the-play is crackling good fun until Simon’s plot closes it down.
Applause also for Aileen Kennison-Adams, the compassionate nurse who pulls Willie through, Justin Polly as the barking TV techie, and Phil Brady as the hapless patient in the vaudeville sketch.
The Sunshine Boys is Neil Simon’s most philosophical comedy, but it still delivers in gags.
The Sunshine Boys continues on Thursday, April 14, through Saturday, April 16, 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 17, 2 p.m., at the Central New York Playhouse’s Shoppingtown Mall venue, 3649 Erie Blvd. E. Call 885-8960.