‘The Sunshine Boys’ brightens NJT stage for 19th opener

 John Contini (left) and  Peter Mayer start in the New Jewish Theatre production of Neil Simon’s ‘The Sunshine Boys.’ Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

To launch its 19th season, the New Jewish Theatre has produced a laugh-out-loud and poignant staging of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” his acclaimed 1972 comedy that was twice adapted to the screen, in 1975 and 1996.   

Simon says that at age 85, he has stopped writing, retiring from a career of more than 30 plays, most of which were adapted into motion pictures, and which he received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer in the history of show business—in addition to a Pulitzer Prize in drama.  

In “The Sunshine Boys,” Simon tells the story of a legendary Jewish vaudeville duo, Lewis and Clark, specifically based on the real-life comedy team of Smith and Dale, whose real names were Joe Sultzer and Charlie Marks. The duo, who inspired other comedy teams such as Gallagher & Shean and later Abbott & Costello, became one of vaudeville’s most popular acts, especially via its classic sketch, “The Doctor Will See You Now,” which is faithfully reproduced in “The Sunshine Boys.”  

John Contini as Willie Clark, who took over the role from Bobby Miller (when he became ill while the play was in rehearsal), and Peter Mayer as Al Lewis are perfectly cast as the comedy team that lit up vaudeville stages across the nation for 43 years.  While Lewis and Clark had pitch-perfect on-stage chemistry during their four-decade career, the two got under each other’s skin, like an old married couple. They put on happy faces for public appearances, but underneath built-up resentments over the years simmer.  

Willie in 1972 is living a bitter and diminished life in a fleabag New York hotel. He deeply resents the fact that after an “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance that capped their career, Lewis abruptly decided to retire at the top of his game. “Yeah, he had a right to retire, but when he retired, he retired me, and I was not ready,” Willie wails to his loving and attentive nephew, Ben (well-played by Jared Sanz-Agero). 


Ben, an ambitious theatrical agent, truly admires and loves his cantankerous and difficult-to-like Uncle Willie. Ben faithfully spends “Wednesdays with Willie,” bringing his uncle his copy of the show biz newspaper bible, Variety, which he mostly peruses to learn which of his longtime associates have died.  

Willie still has acting and comedy chops, but he has started to forget his lines, even for brief commercial spots.  He spends his days consumed with resentment against his former partner, but still insists that Lewis “is the best” when it comes to the timing of a joke or the effective use of a Yiddish accent or reference.  

Ben excitedly tells Willie that CBS is doing a major special on the history of comedy, and wants to reunite Lewis & Clark to reprise their classic, “The Doctor Will See You Now” routine.  Willie reluctantly agrees to do the show, but keeps trying to back out of the gig, while Lewis, living comfortably in retirement with his kids in New Jersey, is willing to give it a try.   

As is always the case with a Neil Simon script, the laughs punctuate almost every line in the play. The shuffling “dance” of Lewis & Clark setting up the props for rehearsal of “The Doctor Will See You Now” in Willie’s apartment and later at the CBS studio, is orchestrated superbly by the actors under the nimble direction of Doug Finlayson.  

“The Doctor Will See You Now” is classically corny, but still sparkles with the magic of non-stop comedic energy. The two Jewish comics would sprinkle their lines with Yiddish words aimed at the significant number of New York Jews who attended their show.  The duo named the physician in the sketch Doctor Kronkheit, which is Yiddish for “sickness.” A sample line from the original Smith & Dale version of the sketch:  

SMITH:  Are you a doctor?  

DALE:  I’m a doctor  

SMITH:  I’m dubious.  

DALE:  I’m glad to know you, Mr. Dubious.  

Yes, the lines are corny and simplistic, but they are the boiled-down essence of vaudeville comedy. Like their real-life counterparts, Lewis & Clark know what words are funny, and what words just cannot get a laugh. They are artists at comedy and a wonder to behold. Once they get into their familiar routine, they “become” their on-stage characters, pushing back the cruel burdens of advancing age and physical impairment.  

Both Contini and Mayer are excellent in the lead roles, with comic timing that is impeccable. Also first-rate is the supporting cast, including Julia Crump as the buxom nurse in the sketch; Bob Harvey as a patient; Leo B. Ramsey as the script-checker for CBS, and Fannie Belle-Lebby as a feisty registered nurse who is more than equal to Clark’s taunting and teasing.  

The production is enhanced by the NJT’s production staff, including outstanding scenic design and art by Margery and Peter Spack. There were only one or two instances of actors speaking over each others’ lines, an issue which will be easily remedied in rehearsal. Essentially, the production is flawless overall, especially considering the fact that Contini had to take over the role of Willie with only five days notice, a truly heroic feat of acting. While Miller is recovering, he will not be able to return to the show.   

NJT has wisely launched its 19th season with this fully satisfying production, which combines humor and a touching story with pitch-perfect harmony.