The cast of Steel Beam Theatre's "The Sunshine Boys" puts a lot of effort into Neil Simon's comedy about estranged Vaudeville comedians who reluctantly reunite for a TV special. In fact, some of the ensemble members work so hard you can actually see them sweat.
Yet the tireless efforts of director Donna Steele's cast can't quite sustain Steel Beam's revival, which suffers from some sluggish, disengaged acting that slows the pace and deflates Simon's trademark one-liners, which, while dated, still elicit chuckles. At least they do when they're properly timed and delivered. Unfortunately, that's not the case here, at least not consistently.
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"The Sunshine Boys"★ ★
Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 7
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Tickets: $25, $23 for students and seniors
Parking: Free parking garage adjacent to the theater
Rating: For most audiences
The action unfolds in 1972, 11 years after the comedy duo billed as Lewis and Clark called it quits, and 12 years after the comedians stopped speaking to each other. Their longtime professional relationship was rooted in mutual respect. As Willie explains, "I knew what he was thinking, he knew what I was thinking ... One person, that's what we were."
But Al Lewis' unexpected decision to retire following an "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance ended their 43-year partnership along with Willie Clark's show biz career. Since then, the irascible Willie (a rather stiff, disconnected Dean Dranias) has divided his time between nursing his grudge against his former partner and auditioning unsuccessfully for commercials, which he loses thanks to his fading memory. His inability to recall dialogue cost him an Alka-Seltzer spot, despite his having "a terrific face for an upset stomach."
The task of supplying Willie with soup, cigars and the latest edition of Variety falls to the kindly Ben (Dean Gallagher), Willie's nephew and agent. Ben arrives for his weekly visit proposing his uncle reunite with Al (the affable Richard Westphal) to perform one of their classic sketches for a TV show chronicling the history of comedy. After some cajoling from Ben, Willie agrees and the two comedians meet for a rehearsal. Wary banter quickly turns to bickering and then to outright sparring by the time they get to taping, which of course does not run smoothly.
Exchanges between Willie and Al are meant to unfold as vaudeville routines, a kind of offstage reflection of their onstage lives. Unfortunately, those scenes don't go as effortlessly as they should. Of the two leads, Westphal is clearly more at ease and more engaged than the detached Dranias, who seems to have a problem connecting with his fellow actors, even failing to make eye contact with them. Clumsy scenes and sluggish shtick results. It's especially disappointing in scenes involving the cantankerous codgers, whose squabbles lack the comedic spark we expect from a Neil Simon show.
As a result, it forces the other actors to work that much harder. And nobody works harder than the agreeable Gallagher, who brings much-needed energy to his scenes. Also deserving mention is Julie Bayer, who looks like she just stepped out of a "Benny Hill" episode. Bayer is a ditsy delight as the jiggly blonde nurse in Lewis and Clark's sketch. Sean Thomas makes the most of his cameo as the beleaguered stage manager Eddie, as does Glynis Walsh as the sassy, candy-loving nurse who cares for Willie and who definitely has his number.