Two Wily Stage Vets Spark Hilarity With “The Sunshine Boys” At New Jewish

John Contini as Willie, hands the phone to Al, played by Peter Mayer in the New Jewish Theatre production of "The Sunshine Boys."

John Contini as Willie, hands the phone to Al, played by Peter Mayer in the New Jewish Theatre production of “The Sunshine Boys.”

The New Jewish Theatre opens their season with a sure-fire Neil Simon script, “The Sunshine Boys.” And, no matter how they got there, John Contini and Peter Mayer make this play their own. Mr. Mayer went into the play on short notice and then, due to an illness, Bobby Miller had to drop out and, with just three days before opening, John Contini stepped in and we have a hit. Looking at a long-lost art- vaudeville- Simon waxes nostalgic but gives us a brief glimpse into what made this great American entertainment so popular for so many years.

The team of Willie Clark and Al Lewis (that’s right- Lewis and Clark) were the most popular comedians on the circuit until Al decided to retire- which left Willie without a partner and without a career. Willie never forgave him and now, years after vaudeville died a slow, painful death, CBS wants to do a tribute show highlighting this famous duo and their infamous “Doctor’s Sketch.” The demise of vaudeville may once again be in the cards as Willie refuses to work with Al but eventually comes around. Through the bickering and dredging up of old peccadilloes, the two

John Contini and Jared Sanz-Agero in "The Sunshine Boys" at New Jewish Theatre.

John Contini and Jared Sanz-Agero in “The Sunshine Boys” at New Jewish Theatre.

finally reach the final dress before the live performance and almost come to blows. We quickly cut to after the show and find how friendships are resurrected and then lost again.

It never ceases to amaze me what a stellar group of actors we have living in St. Louis. On a few days’ notice, Mr. Contini not only learned lines, he brought a nuance and power to Willie that is hilarious and heartbreaking. Matching him barb for barb is the mixture of irrascability and heart-of-gold that Mr. Mayer brings to Al. These two form a chemistry that shows what these two characters have meant to each other over the years. Having seen “The Sunshine Boys” numerous times, it’s amazing how each pair of Lewis and Clark’s over the years have been so different

Peter Mayer as Al rambles on to an indifferent Willie played by John Contini at the New Jewish production of "The Sunshine Boys."

Peter Mayer as Al rambles on to an indifferent Willie played by John Contini at the New Jewish production of “The Sunshine Boys.”

yet so uncommingly good. This pair ranks among the best and, despite being local actors who have undoubtedly worked together over the years, have quickly found a bond over just a few rehearsals.

Jared Sanz-Agero is stellar as Willie’s nephew who cares for him, brings him groceries and Variety every Wednesday and even eventually offers to open up his home to Willie when he can’t fend for himself anymore. His compassion and dedication to his uncle shines through. Fannie Belle-Lebby is hysterical as Willie’s visiting nurse and the trio of Julia Crump, Bob Harvey and Leo B. Ramsey provide humor as foils in the live TV rehearsal.

The beautiful Margery and Peter Spack set design with Peter Mayer and John Contini in "The Sunshine Boys" at New Jewish Theatre.

The beautiful Margery and Peter Spack set design with Peter Mayer and John Contini in “The Sunshine Boys” at New Jewish Theatre.

Director Doug Finlayson leads the cast by the heartstrings. This is a funny, funny script coming from a man who started in the next big thing after vaudeville, early TV variety shows, Neil Simon. But it also mixes nostalgia with a keen sense of loss for this almost forgotten art form. It’s a remarkable work that truly gets better with each viewing. The lovely and poingnant set design is by Margery and Peter Spack with a great lighting design by Michael Sullivan and Michele Friedman Siler’s excellent costumes. In other words, New Jewish has once again delivered a total knock-out for their opening.

Set in 1972, “The Sunshine Boys” was a love letter to vaudeville and it continues to remind us of that bright and shining moment of American entertainment that lives on in some forms today. It’s a fine play, lovingly recreated at New Jewish. Don’t miss out on this chance to see two icons of local theatre create two icons of vaudeville. “The Sunshine Boys” plays at New Jewish Theatre through November 1st.

lost again

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