Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is a big show: the characters are big (two former vaudeville performers—enough said), the attention to detail is big (Simon writes in such a way that swapping “the” for “an” changes a line completely), the concept is big (a comedy duo with 43 years under their belts haven’t spoken for 11 years and are enticed to reunite for a CBS-TV special). So what does a big show like this need in order to shine? A little something I like to call “the Guthrie effect.”
Director Gary Gisselman, who also directed Simon’s Lost in Yonkers at the Guthrie in 2006, pulled all the strings available to him at the Guthrie for Sunshine Boys. He got two of the Guthrie’s most acclaimed acting vets, Peter Michael Goetz and Raye Birk, to play the lead roles of Willie Clark and Al Lewis (respectively). He snagged top-notch talent—Robert O. Berdahl, Greta Oglesby, Nathaniel Fuller, even Dudley Riggs (founder of Brave New Workshop and a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus vet)—to fill out the rest of the cast. He leaned on Tony Award-winning set and costume designer John Arnone for uniquely conceptual yet functional scenery and outfits. But for all the ado and pomp, Gisselman and his team also held back, a necessity in order to tactfully perform a show that is celebrated as much for its astute portrayal of reality as its witty one-liners.
With an all-star cast, crew, and script comes high expectations, the majority of which were met on opening night. A couple weeks ago, when I sat down with Goetz and Birk to talk about the show, both emphasized how very important it was to nail each line of Simon’s script, word for word, no room for error, period. Ad-libbing, one of Goetz’s specialties, was out of the question, and it was causing some pre-show nerves. On opening night, this nervousness could be felt at times when Goetz was alone on stage—not to the point of handicapping his performance, but such that you could feel him thinking through rather than whole-heartedly delivering his lines.
Any stiffness faded when Birk joined Goetz on stage, however. Although I’ll be the first to say the phrase “dream team” is cliché in most respects, it definitely applies to this acting duo. Birk’s quiet humor forms the foundation upon which Goetz’s showy, look-at-me antics thrive, and the men are able to read each other as if they’ve worked together every day of their 50-plus-year careers. An unexpected but welcome surprise came in the form of Berdahl’s performance as Willie’s nephew/agent. Normally over-the-top in his physical comedy and expressions, Berdahl tones it down for this role and offers a heartfelt, down-to-earth vibe that serves to ground the play.
As a whole, every element of The Sunshine Boys is near perfect: the script is flawless, the casting is spot on, the set is beautiful. Give it time, and, like its lead actors, it will just keep getting better.
The Sunshine Boys
Through September 2
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.