Actors Peter Michael Goetz and Raye Birk, playing an estranged comedy duo, show that they have the goods.
A master of timing and stage business, actor Peter Michael Goetz does not have to say a word to elicit laughs in "The Sunshine Boys," the Neil Simon comedy that opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In the play, set in the early 1970s, Goetz depicts cantankerous coot Willie Clark, who had a forced retirement from vaudeville a decade ago when his partner, Al Lewis (Raye Birk), just up and left. Like an abruptly abandoned spouse, he has been stewing ever since.
When we first meet Willie in Gary Gisselman's gleeful production, the old vaudeville pro is sitting in his pajamas in the downscale hotel room where he lives, fussing with a cigar and watching a small, overloud TV set with rabbit-ear antenna. To improve the TV reception, Willie rolls up tinfoil and attaches it to the antenna. When someone comes to the door, which has many locks, Willie pads across the room with small steps. That old-man walk is just one of the many smart choices that makes this "Boys" so entertaining.
The story is full of frostiness surrounding a potential reunion of the argumentative comedy duo. Lewis and Clark did not speak directly to each other during the last year they worked together. Now, Willie's agent nephew, Ben Silverman (Robert O. Berdahl), is trying to get them to reunite and play nice. He has booked them for a reunion for a TV special.
Simon's humor often is broad and dated. "Boys" is set at a time of social activism, including for women's rights. But such winds do not blow into the world of Lewis and Clark, where objectification is just for fun. In the sketch-within-a-play, for example, there's a nurse (played by Jennifer Maren) whose form-fitting outfit accentuates her bust. When she bends over to read the names of patients, the good doctor (played by Goetz), nearly gets a heart attack as he rubs his hands and licks his lips.
I found myself laughing a lot during the show, even as I felt guilty when I thought about it later. That I enjoyed myself so much is a testament to the skills of the cast. Birk also proves to be an adept comedian, with expert timing. He communicates as much with small gestures as with well-delivered words.
The production includes smaller, well-done roles. Berdahl's Ben is a straight man and the actor, who was so hysterical last year in "H.M.S. Pinafore," shows another side of his talent, investing Ben with charming warmth. Well-known star Greta Oglesby, who is not done any favors by costume designer John Arnone, also shows another side of her expansive talent. She plays the Registered Nurse for Willie, a tiny role that is an object lesson in how to deliver humor.
All in all, this "Boys" is good for some summer laughs.
Rohan Preston 612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston