Raye Birk and Peter Michael Goetz in The Sunshine Boys

'Sunshine Boys' Will Be Boys at The Guthrie

I’ve loved Neil Simon since my grandmother took me to see the film version of Brighton Beach Memoirs in 1986.

Peter Michael Goetz and Raye Birk in The Sunshine Boys


Something about his writing style and character development has always resonated with me. Biloxi Blues, Barefoot In The Park, Lost in Yonkers, The Odd Couple. I’ve seen most of Simon’s classics on a Broadway stage or on the big screen, but for some reason The Sunshine Boys has eluded me.
Better late than never (for me and for the main characters).
The Sunshine Boys is the story of a fictional Vaudeville comedy duo who, after 11 years of estrangement, finally reunite and make amends. The Guthrie Theater’s new production stars Peter Michael Goetz as Willie Clark and Raye Birk as Al Lewis – two actors who got their starts at the Guthrie in the 1960s and who both went on to have successful careers in film, TV, and theater.
I was a bit nervous that Simon’s classic New York Jewish humor would fall flat to a neutral Midwestern audience, but I was pleasantly surprised. The laughter was constant and not just of the polite kind. So while the Zabar’s takeout bag was probably lost on most (my mouth was watering at the sight of it), the themes of the play were a bit more universal.
Willie Clark is a washed-up Vaudevillian whose only connection to the world outside of his apartment is his nephew Ben. Widowed and childless, Willie relies on Ben to be his caretaker, friend, errand boy, and de facto agent. Even at his advanced age, Willie is desperate to work again and relentlessly badgers his nephew to book gigs of any kind. When Ben does land the big gig, we finally come to understand Willie Clark’s motives and his insecurities.

Raye Birk and Peter Michael Goetz in The Sunshine Boys


The gig involves the reunion of Lewis & Clark for a CBS special on the history of comedy. We quickly learn how Willie went from the top of the show business world to a one room hotel apartment. We learn that beneath the gruff exterior is a sad and lonely man who never got used to a life without a live audience. And so, Al Lewis re-enters Willie’s life – whether he likes it or not. The two battle like prepubescent brothers until tragedy strikes.
The Sunshine Boys is most certainly a comedy and a very funny one at that. Forty years after its Broadway premiere, the jokes still evoke a wide spectrum of laughs – from the chuckle to the full belly. But the themes of friendship, loss, aging, and forgiveness make this classic Neil Simon theater. Even if you don’t understand why Willie Clark hates New Jersey (“you only go to New Jersey if you have to” and “I wished they never finished the George Washington Bridge”), you can still relate to the story and the characters. That’s what makes Neil Simon timeless.
The Guthrie is always a delight and the Wurtele Thrust Stage is the perfect venue for such an intimate play. My only beef (kosher I promise) with the entire performance (and my wife is going to kill me for saying this) was the accent of the actor playing Ben. It took a while for me to realize that Ben wasn’t visiting his uncle from Boston. Just sayin’.
So go buy your tickets for The Guthrie’s presentation of The Sunshine Boys – now playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage through September 2.
It’s a real treat (kind of like some lox from Zabar’s, but no bagel necessary).
*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received free tickets to ”The Sunshine Boys” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the tickets for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…