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Neil Simon comedy a good vehicle for two seasoned actors

January 23, 2012
By DIANE SPEER - News Lifestyles Editor , The Alpena News

When it comes to misnomers, a biggie would have to be attaching the label of "Sunshine Boys" to the two cantankerous characters in Thunder Bay Theatre's newest production.

The estranged duo of Willie Clark and Al Lewis solidly portrayed by seasoned actors David Usher and Pat Jacques certainly don't conjure up visions of sunshine and happiness. Instead, a mantle of cranky, disgruntled and blustery fits them both far better.

The play, written in 1972, is vintage Neil Simon. You've got two curmudgeonly guys who spend much of their time verbally sparring over the slightest detail, all in the name of comedy. Underlying the humor, a pathos brought on by aging, loneliness and lost dreams resonates.

Though Willie and Al enjoyed fame for more than 40 years as a successful vaudeville act known as Lewis and Clark, by the end of their run, they had grown to hate each other and haven't spoken in 11 years. Now this washed up duo is being asked to reunite for a CBS television special.

Not only do Usher and Jacques do a nice job with the timing on the many barbs they shoot at one another, but they also bring an appropriate physicality to Willie and Al. Usher, as the disheveled Willie, shuffles along in his slippers and pajamas inside his once former grand hotel suite that is now a down on its heels dwelling place. Jacques plays the aging and persnickety Al with a gentleman's dignity.

Zach Clement assumes his biggest role yet at TBT as Willie's frustrated nephew, Ben, who stops by weekly to see his uncle, bring him cigars and magazines, and endure a constant berating. Clement clearly is up to the expanded role. He's totally convincing as a nephew who loves his difficult uncle, and serves as his agent, despite a lack of gratitude on Willie's part.

The first act is set in Willie's apartment, where Willie reluctantly reunites with Al, who he castigates for always shoving a pointed finger in his chest and spitting on him during their performance years. As they start to rehearse, it's funny to watch these two arrange kitchen furniture into an approximation of their old set for the upcoming "Doctor" sketch that they are recreating for CBS.

In the second act, the scene shifts to the television studio where the guys do their signature routine. This provides an opportunity for several minor characters to add to the overall humor. Rick Mesler plays the patient in Willie and Al's skit, while foreign exchange student Lion Schulz is the television stage manager, Eddie. Both performers are good in their respective roles.

Kendra McInerney hams it up as the sexy nurse featured in the TV skit. The bitterness of Willie and Al ultimately builds up and boils over with somewhat dire consequences. Nickie Hilton plays Willie's nurse after things don't go so well for him. She's amusing as she whips barbs right back at him, all the while consuming Whitman's chocolates and fluffing pillows.

"The Sunshine Boys" definitely pays homage to the era of vaudeville even if the comedy of yesteryear comes off a bit hokey and outdated at times. The play, well directed by Derek Spack, is a very suitable vehicle for Usher and Jacques, who always are entertaining no matter what shows they do.

Spack also served as technical director, with pleasing results. Overall, "The Sunshine Boys" is a good way to bring a little warmth to an otherwise frozen winter season.

Remaining performances are Jan. 26-29 and Feb. 2-5, with show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call the box office at 354-2267.



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