Ever hear of Lewis and Clark? Not the explorers, the vaudeville team.
They used to knock ’em dead. Now they’re just knocking on death’s door — separately, since they haven’t spoken in years.
They’re meeting again, though, in Keegan Theatre’s workmanlike revival of Neil Simon’s 1972 Broadway hit “The Sunshine Boys.” As directed by Michael Innocenti, the production doesn’t plumb too deeply between or beneath the lines.
True, the lines are pretty good on their own, but there’s enough existential uneasiness in Simon’s script, about the way careers, friends and life seep away, to lend a whiff of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” to this deceptively simple play.
Al Lewis (Timothy Lynch) and Willie Clark (Kevin Adams) are long estranged. But Ben (Peter Finnegan), the stubbornly affectionate nephew of the self-absorbed Willie, wants to reunite the two men for a TV special about the history of comedy. They can do their classic doctor sketch.
It is a flaw of the script that so much of the first act, set in the early 1980s, takes place in Willie’s shabby rooms in an old hotel, minus the presence of Al. Willie and Ben, who’s a talent agent, dole out the back story at great expository length — Willie’s health, his forgetfulness, his career as half of Lewis and Clark, his irritation that Ben can’t find him work.
Years ago, Al retired on him with no warning, and they haven’t spoken since. For most of the first act, Adams paints Willie in broad, heavy strokes, telegraphing every blustery reaction before he executes it, laying all his wrath on Ben, who gets chest pains from the stress. When Lynch’s Al finally walks in near the end of Act 1, you can almost hear the cylinders fire up in Keegan’s production. Hunched and scowling, revealing little at first about his life in retirement, Lynch piques your curiosity about Al and engages Adams’s Willie in a subtler, funnier back-and-forth, bristling with their old gripes, but letting the reunion happen anyway.
Once they start rehearsing, issues arise: Willie complains that Al sprays him with spit and pokes too hard with his finger. Al can’t stand it that Willie decides to say “Enter!” instead of “Come in!” Such a to-do, you wouldn’t believe.
The play’s second act, set in the network TV studio where Lewis and Clark are supposed to do their thing for posterity, moves along at a more satisfying pace, and Maria Rizzo has a rich turn as the buxom nurse in their skit. But Al and Willie can’t get through a taping without bickering, and the angst finally gives Willie a real taste of mortality. We’re quickly returned to his dingy flat, where a capable nurse (Kecia A. Campbell) eats all his candy and gives him as much bad attitude as he doles out.
Scenic designer Eric Lucas, though working with flimsy-looking flats, captures in color and layout the depressing dinginess of Willie’s place, and, flipped around after intermission, the sterile look of a TV studio. Brittany Harris’s costumes hit the right note, too, putting nephew Ben in checks and beltless slacks, and Al in an eye-assaulting plaid suit for the skit.
Between acts, one hears fun audio excerpts of old comedy duos, most recognizably Burns and Allen (sound design by Dan Deiter). But why are the musical curtain raisers before each act snatches of Scott Joplin ragtimes? Surely these predate the careers of Lewis and Clark.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Neil Simon. Directed by Michael Innocenti. With Nello DeBlasio, William Aitken and Robb Spewak. Lighting design, Colin Dieck; set dressing and props by Carol Floretta H. Baker. Tickets: $30 - $35. About 21 / 2 hours, including an intermission. Presented by the Keegan Theatre through Oct. 19 at 1742 Church St. NW. Visit www.keegantheatre.com