The Sunshine Boys

NCSU Theatrefest
Through June 24

Water stains run their discolored fingers down the drab walls of a cold, one-room apartment in New York. Its sole inhabitant, who hasn’t been outside in a while, complains in his pajamas and bathrobe at a banged-up television with an improvised aluminum foil and coat-hanger antenna.

Moments later, his nephew drops by for his weekly visit, with provisions, including six cans of low-sodium soup, a carton of milk he won’t drink, toilet paper, cigarsand, most importantly, the latest issue of Variety. Its pages provide the material for the ensuing conversation: the obituaries of former showbiz associates.

All in all, those expecting playwright Neil Simon’s usual light touch are in for a bit of a change-up in the opening to The Sunshine Boys, the closing production of N.C. State’s 2012 Theatrefest series.

Yes, Simon ultimately makes with the laughs in this 1972 backstage comedy that depicts what happens when two old comedy partners who’ve grown to loathe each other reluctantly agree to reunite for one night for a network television special. But in the process, the playwright clearly wanted to underline what life was like for certain old showmen once the agents stopped returning phone calls.

The respected veteran performer David Ring returns to the stage as Willie, the aging, rancorous comic reduced to the grim domicile conceived by set designer Jayme Mellema. Of all the grudges he nurses against Al, his one-time partner (a crisp, solemn John Boni), we quickly learn the largest: that Al simply abandoned him when he retired. Clearly, the plan of Ben, Willie’s easily vexed nephew (T. Phillip Caudle), to reunite the two is A Bad Idea.

Sparks fly when the two are placed in the same room for rehearsals, first in Willie’s apartment and then on a television soundstage. While their “doctor sketch” is running, some of its musty jokes impress with vintage wit. The rest are mostly bottom-drawer sex gags focused on the requisite bimbo nurse (Maddison Harris, whose kewpie-doll voice, I have to admit, was a delectable exercise in time travel all by itself).

After disaster ensues, an unexpected rapprochement, of a sort, follows, as aging funnymen who’ve long since learned that so many things aren’t funny look for a way to patch up long-bruised feelings and move on. Though the gags are plentiful in this decidedly bittersweet opus, Simon seems most interested in showing how old vaudevillians really fade away.