At the top of the second act of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” a pair of old vaudevillians reunites for a rehearsal of one of the classic sketches that made them legendary performers.
Willie Clark and Al Lewis haven’t worked together or seen each other for 11 years, but when the lights come on, they move and swap one-liners and insults as if only minutes have passed since their last show. It’s in their bones.
The sketch, “The Doctor Will See You Now,” is intentionally corny and sexist and wonderfully performed by Bob Trisolini as Willie and Dan Higgs as Al, with some comical bounce from Alison Dietz as the buxom nurse oblivious to the ways the men are harmlessly leering.
It’s also the sharpest part of the new production of Simon’s play, directed by Roberta MacDonald, that opens the Players Theatre’s Summer Sizzler series. There are a lot of laughs, particularly for those unfamiliar with the story’s twists and turns, but there could be more.
Trisolini plays the bitter Willie, who resents the way his partner of 43 years walked out 11 years ago, leaving him to seek solo work without much success. He’s meant to be cantankerous and infirmed (which he doesn’t want to admit), but Trisolini plays him more as a friendly whiner with a quite a bit of spring in his shuffling step.
Trisolini, who is engaging and consistent, actually seems to be “performing” even when he’s not in one of those comedy sketches. There’s a rehearsed quality to many of his lines and reactions, which doesn’t match the more natural performance of Higgs, or the likable and grounded Kerry Betts as Willie’s caregiving nephew, Ben.
But when Higgs and Trisolini are working together, there are quite a lot of sparks because of the sharpness of Simon’s script. Like Lewis and Clark, the two actors bring out something in the other that generates many of the expected laughs.
There were times Thursday night, however, when I wondered what it might have been like if they had reversed roles. Higgs seems more stern as Al, which would fit better with Willie’s character.
The summer shows are produced with smaller budgets, so you shouldn’t expect big sets and lighting effects. “The Sunshine Boys” actually doesn’t need them because the focus is on two clearly drawn characters and the comedy history they represent.
And you clearly see the traditions in that classic sketch, written by Simon years after vaudeville faded away. The two men have sharp timing revealing the years of practice and experience that brought Lewis and Clark fame as The Sunshine Boys.
If the rest of the show doesn’t off quite as sharp, it still generates some good laughs for a hot summer night.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
By Neil Simon. Directed by Roberta MacDonald. Reviewed June 13, Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Through Sunday and June 27-30. Tickets are $18. 365-2494; theplayers.org