There aren’t many sure things in theater: A company invests time, money and a whole lot of energy into mounting a show… and the people either come or they don’t. It’s a gamble. Producers can hedge their bets, though, like Gulfport Community Players does with its latest production, Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” There aren’t many playwrights who put butts in seats like Simon: He’s one of the most recognizable names in American theater.
The challenge with taking on a Neil Simon play is not getting audiences interested, it’s delivering the goods once the curtain rises. Director Patrick Brafford and his team – in particular, leads Ron Zietz and Dean Wick – crack Simon’s formula. Wick and Zietz see what a lot of productions don’t: Simon is more than a master of witty banter.
Sure, some of the dialogue in “The Sunshine Boys” could elicit a chuckle even if delivered monotone, but GCP’s production will win you over because the cast masters Simon’s deeply drawn characters and impeccable comedic timing.
Zietz and Wick play Willie Clark and Al Lewis, respectively, a one-time vaudevillian team. Their chemistry was electric and people loved them – until Al decided the thrill was gone and left Willie struggling to fly solo. When Willie’s talent agent nephew proposes a television reunion special, the pair must move past old wounds to rekindle the magic that made them legends.
Wick and Zietz see what a lot of productions don’t: Simon is more than a master of witty banter.
That ending could easily describe a broken marriage instead of a comedy duo, and the recognition of that is how this production shows it’s tuned into Simon’s frequency. Any moderately talented actor could play Willie as a crotchety, bitter old coot consumed with anger and probably get some solid laughs. Zietz, though, plays him as hurt, not angry; lost and increasingly frustrated. Al, meanwhile, could come off as aloof and oblivious; the partner who moved on with little hesitation – and can’t understand why his counterpart couldn’t do the same. Wick’s Al is slightly aloof – he’s often the cool and calm foil to WIllie’s tirades – but he’s not oblivious to the pain he caused.
As is the case with most of the great Neil Simon plays, there are no throwaway characters in the cast: Brian Roller plays Ben as enamored with his uncle while fighting the urge to wring the old man’s neck. And Annie Mirren only appears in one scene but wins it hands down as Willie’s unflappable nurse who gives as much as she gets from her ornery patient.
Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S., Gulfport. Through Nov. 21: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. $20 only at gulfportcommunityplayers.org. Socially distanced seating; masks required except when seated.