Joe Jenkes and Jan Forbes team up as Neil Simon's fictional vaudeville team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark in a touching production of his warmly sentimental tribute to a key part of American comedy history.
"The Sunshine Boys," which opened last Saturday for a run lasting the rest of this month at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, offers two superbly written and notable roles for actors able to play the most senior of senior citizens.
Joe Jenkes has the larger of the two roles: That of the cantankerous former vaudevillian who had no desire to retire when, 11 years prior to the events in this play, his partner decided to end his career after working as a team for forty three years.
Now living in a one-room plus kitchenette hotel in New York City, the old vaudeville star rarely gets out of his pajamas and robe and the highlight of most weeks is the arrival of Variety where he can read the obituaries of his old friends.
Jenkes manages to avoid repeating either Jack Albertson, who originated the role of Willy Clark on Broadway, or Walter Matthau, who played the part in the well-remembered movie version. His way with a flippant line is sharp enough to convince you that Clark must have been fabulously funny in his heyday.
Forbes takes on the part that Sam Levine originated on Broadway, and which was going to be played by Jack Benny in the movie version only to have Benny drop out when he was diagnosed with a terminal case of cancer. His lifetime friend George Burns stepped in and earned an Oscar for his portrayal.
Forbes may not make you forget George Burns's tremendous portrayal; and, in fact, he has just a touch of Burns's facial ticks. However, he creates a very human and very sympathetic character while also getting all the humor across.
JENKES AND FORBES are helped a great deal by a strong supporting performance by Jim Carmalt as Clark's nephew, who arranges a one-time-only reunion for the pair on a network television special. It is a fairly thankless role since the audience always comes away remembering the vaudeville team, not the nephew. But it is also a crucial role for it drives the plot forward at the same time that it gives a lot of the straight lines that set up many of Jenkes's funnier punch lines.
The play revolves around the effort of the nephew to get the two to overcome their feud to recreate their classic vaudeville routine, a sketch about a visit to a doctor.
That sketch is recreated as the opening of Act Two and gives the audience a chance to sit back and experience the kind of comedy that worked so well for so long.
The set by designer John Downing places the dilapidated hotel room, where Jenkes's Clark is spending his last days, on a turntable in order to revolve during intermission to reveal an entirely separate set of the television studio, where the doctor sketch is being rehearsed. It is an impressive piece of set construction by Jack Schaeffer and Jerry Wolf's team.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region, www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.