Neil Simon supplies oodles of sharp gag lines, but the factor that generates the most laughs in Keith Baker’s astute production of “The Sunshine Boys” is elemental comedy.
I am talking about basic, time-honored, old-fashioned comedy that doesn’t depend on jokes or anything else verbal because for the most part it’s silent.
Baker’s “Sunshine Boys,” at Bristol Riverside Theater through March 31, features several fine performances, but the one that catapults this staging from garden variety to special is Allen Lewis Rickman’s.
Rickman is a master at the move, look, expression, or gesture that snowballs into hilarity. The walk he gives his character, coincidentally named Al Lewis, registers as funny because it is as accurate for a man of age as it is traditionally comic.
Watching Rickman take off, or put on, a coat is an example of comedy that escalates from the simplest source. Again, it’s because the actor can infuse the genuine in bits that have been around since one caveman first guffawed at another bumping his head on a low cave opening.
The good news is none of what Rickman does is forced. It all emanates from his character, a comic legend from vaudeville and early television who after 11 years of retirement is about to make a rare appearance on a TV tribute to comedy.
Rickman creates a believable Al Lewis who is more than a type or a stereotype. He may do it by pulling tricks from an ancient playbook, but that only proves how well the tested works when the right actor uses it.
Rickman is right for Simon, too. His line deliveries are measured and consistent. They further define a character while setting up two unexpected high points, when the slow-spoken Lewis quickly rattles off a list of props needed for a classic sketch and when we see the assurance and meticulous timing of a comic pro when he performs that sketch at a dress rehearsal for the comedy tribute.
It’s a doctor sketch and Rickman, playing a patient, even breaks from his Laurel-like gambits to sneak in a Hardy-esque wave at a sexy nurse. Good stuff!
And Rickman, while the gem of the production, is not alone in creating it. Simon’s play is, after all, called “The Sunshine Boys.” “Boys,” plural. So there has to be another actor supplying the yin to Rickman’s yang.
At Bristol, Carl Wallnau displays his own assortment of comic gifts and deftness at making the silent play, for example when he kicks a partially eaten corned beef sandwich under a chair after his character’s nephew accuses him of wantonly violating the heart-healthy diet his cardiologist prescribes.
Wallnau does everything right, but he is at a disadvantage that Rickman can overcome. His character, Willie Clark — get it, Lewis and Clark — is a curmudgeon. He is always ranting, complaining, and making matters difficult for anyone in his path, particularly his nephew, Lewis, and the poor director and stage manager charged with rehearsing his and Lewis’ doctor sketch.
Rickman has a character to build. Simon gives hints but doesn’t assemble every trait and nuance. Wallnau is stuck with the pre-fabricated. His character is a grouch, and there’s little room to go beyond that.
Given that whoever plays Clark plays with a handicap, Wallnau is a towering grouch. He roars with outrage at the smallest situation. He feels conspired against from every quarter. He shows how Willie cannot resist making trouble or teasing the slightest incident into temperamental calamity. There is thunder in this performance, and a portrait is established.
It is, alas, an unattractive portrait, forced into its ugliness and limits by Simon not giving Willie a chance to expand or even the time to show that he can’t help himself.
To his credit, Wallnau tries at some shading. There’s a quiet moment he creates with Rickman toward the end, a scene in which Clark says the one nice word to Lewis that Simon allows throughout the play.
“The Sunshine Boys” is essentially about Willie. But because he’s always yelling at or insulting someone, he never quite grabs the focus the way Lewis, with leeway to create some subtlety and personality, can.
Simon creates the problem. “The Sunshine Boys” contains some wonderful comic writing and a comic sketch that preserves vaudeville and its broadness with gratifying verity, but it misses its mark by never giving Willie a chance to garner sympathy.
Wallnau, when sticking to the sketch and not sabotaging Lewis and Clark’s comeback, is hilarious during the dress rehearsal. He endows the doctor he plays with a Sid Caesar-like German accent and a galloping step that makes it look as if his regular mode of ambulation is dancing.
Speaking of dancing, director Baker is to be congratulated for choreographing some fabulous sight gags, again silent. The scene is which the “boys” shift the furniture in Clark’s apartment to create the doctor sketch’s set is a priceless moment of elemental hysteria. Some of the double takes in the sketch may be vintage, but they are also surefire choices.
Like Lewis and Clark, Rickman and Wallnau are a great team. Wallnau meets his match as Clark spars with an unflappable registered nurse played by an archly precise Demetria Joyce Bailey. Nicole Benoit has some fine moments as the sketch nurse, and Christopher J. Perugini garners attention as the stage manager Lewis and Clark drive to wit’s end.
“The Sunshine Boys” was written in 1972. It draws from popular comedy techniques of the 1920s through the ’70s. The doctor sketch, punctuated with leers at, and leering comments about, the nurse would put #MeToo knickers in an outraged twist. Other lines or routines might grate on modern sensibilities. The era in which they’re set provides the perspective while also showing how harmless, and often funny, they are. Simon knows his business in the sketch scene.
Jason Simms finds the right formula for clutter and squalor in Willie’s apartment and creates a joyful set for the comedy sketch. Linda B. Stockton, or Baker, is inspired to have Willie appear always in some variation of his pajamas. Charles Reece gets the lighting right for both the play and ’70s television.
The Sunshine Boys, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through March 31. $10 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.