The setup: Neil Simon is still a massively popular American playwright -- able to sell tickets on name alone when some shows can scarcely sell tickets at all -- and his success gets in his way, critically speaking. You have to look at a theater company's choice to do one of Simon's plays the way I look at chicken fingers: They're the only thing a little kid will order in a restaurant, and most of them are dried-out travesties, but the basic idea is a good one and if you go to someplace good like The Machine Shed, your faith will be restored. (Same for the cottage cheese, which is really more in sync with Simon's audience demographics.)
For example, there's nothing wrong with The Odd Couple. Never will be. It is possible to screw it up, which is where a lot of troupes go wrong. Even the best of Simon's plays require at least some acting and directing to make them work, and the less wonderful ones, of which there are several, call for the ministrations of geniuses of the stage.
The Sunshine Boys, a tale of a team of old vaudeville-style comedians, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, reunited for a TV special in the 1970s, won an Oscar for George Burns when it was made into a film. So it will never die (though we thought that about Burns for a long time, too).
The execution: Arizona Theatre Company's current production boasts several sweet notes in a show that is perhaps irreparably dated. In order for the leading men to be alive, the setting has to remain in the past. (I would love to check out the 1995 made-for-TV production for which Simon time-shifted the action and made Lewis and Clark into pioneers of TV comedy, the arena where Simon himself and star Woody Allen made their bones. Though it looks pretty bad, at least it takes place less than two decades ago.)
If people getting old and arguing and wishing they could still work when they can't had been part of the '70s zeitgeist in particular, all the loving care ATC's artists put into the sets and costumes would be in the service of something significant and nostalgic. However, it's difficult to watch the minuscule plot unfold and not have it occur to you how differently we now regard aging and its debilitating effects, for example. Or heart attacks.
There's a charming symmetry between the action itself, which begins and ends in Clark's seedy residential hotel room, incorporates a funny nurse (the impressive Lillie Richardson) at one point, and features a grip of awful, recurring jokes, and the old Lewis and Clark sketch within the play, which features a sexy nurse and more bad old jokes. None of these devices quite pops, though, and the parallels don't mean anything.
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But that hotel set is really something. You can practically feel and smell the layers of nicotine and cooking grease on the walls. It's a stunning achievement by Yoon Bae.
The acting is also first-rate, if sometimes draggy. Peter Van Norden as Clark is all rubber-faced animation; he reminds me of actors who are always "on," and that's perfect for his character as well as making his time on stage (which is virtually the entire play) more diverting for the audience. David Green makes the "straight man" of the team a multidimensional individual, and Valley favorite Bob Sorenson is just swell as Clark's long-suffering nephew and agent. The verdict: This Sunshine Boys is fairly entertaining, but there's no real magic of theater going on; you might feel a little cheated, like you dressed up and bought tickets to a Three's Company marathon.
The Sunshine Boys continues through Sunday, April 14 at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $27.50 to $82.50; order them here or call 602-256-6995.