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THEATER | STAGE REVIEW

Lighting Up a Role

Ira Gewant's intricate performance sparks 'The Sunshine Boys.'

June 04, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are two important ingredients needed to make Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" work: the right actors to play ex-vaudevillians Lewis and Clark.

Willie Clark hasn't spoken to Al Lewis in 11 years, and Lewis hasn't tried to break the impasse. Their highly successful 46-year career was a bumpy road all the way, and it's not such an unusual story; Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello had similar schisms.

The trick in these two roles is keeping the Sunshine Boys funny, and at the same time showing their haunting fear of loneliness and their bitterness that show business has passed them by.

Director Michael Ross, in his staging of the Simon comedy at Long Beach Playhouse, almost makes the trick work. At least he understands the infantile emotional duel between Lewis and Clark when they're asked to appear together again on a television special about the history of comedy.

In the more important role of Willie Clark, Ira Gewant gives an impeccably intricate and colorful performance full of humor and insights into the slowly slipping mind of a once very sharp comedian. Gewant's slow burns and covert glances, and his childish joy in befuddling those trying to help him, provide an affecting glimpse into Lewis' mind. Gewant often gives Lewis a desperate and unrealistic sense of pride in a business that has forgotten him.

Vic Helford is Clark's more complacent partner, Al Lewis, who left the team to be a stockbroker. Now retired and as forgotten as Clark, Lewis lives with his children and accepts the reunion only a little better.

Helford doesn't have as much time onstage and less opportunity for etching a strong characterization, but he manages an effective, opaque sort of superiority that continually goads Clark into anger. He's a good foil for Gewant but lacks the latter's comic flair in the brief vaudeville sketch they almost pull off in the television special.

As Clark's nephew Ben Silverman, a young agent trying to make his mark by getting Lewis and Clark together again, Rob Rainey gives a solid, ingratiating performance. Jane Nunn is excellent as the nurse who cares for Clark after a heart attack; she's just edgy and sharp enough to balance the character's professional charm.

In smaller roles, Cristian Young Miller as a television floor manager, Philip Clelland as his assistant and Giovanna Fusco as a nurse in the comics' sketch are all effective, particularly Clelland in his few minutes onstage as a funny, befuddled nerd whose job is slightly beyond him.

BE THERE

"The Sunshine Boys," Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage, 5021 E. Anaheim St. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. matinees June 7, 14 and 21. $10-$15. Ends June 27. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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