DIRECTOR LINDA HANCOCK’S The Listening Place Readers’ Theater deftly fills a need other local companies do not. With a good script and seasoned actors, you don’t need sets and costumes and lighting—all that tech that makes for good theater but costs big bucks. At the Monterey Museum of Art on Sunday, two octogenarians—Michael Robbins and Philip Pearce—attracted a full-house audience for Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy about two former vaudevillians who are forced together by the agent nephew of one of them for a CBS ‘history of comedy’ show. Forced together because of a decades-long feud that began in their heyday only to be set in stone when one of them abruptly retires, effectively retiring the other who wasn’t ready to take that step.
Simon’s play is, like so many Simon comedies, a marvel of repartee and word-jousting. Robbins plays Willie Clark, the untimely stranded one with a hair-trigger urge for revenge—and who gets the best part in the play. Pearce is Al Lewis, uptight, preachy and quick to criticize, but still acknowledged by the Clark character as a master of comedy. Each reveals a deeper sentimentality when out of earshot from one another, but Clark, in spite of himself, is the more vulnerable.
Lined up behind music stands, ‘readers-theater’ style, the two were abetted by Carl Twisselman as Ben Silverman, the agent/nephew of Willie Clark, Richard Boynton as the CBS TV director, Robert Colter as his assistant, and Pat Horsley as the nurse. Twisselman’s character takes the third biggest role with weekly visits to his mostly shut-in uncle and in negotiating the deal with CBS. But the best stuff is the bickering between the two aged halves of the “Sunshine Boys” themselves. (Think of Simon’s The Odd Couple.) Instead of rehearsing for the TV director, they fall back into arguing and name-calling, until Willie Clark has a heart attack that puts an end to any revival of their skit. The last scene finds Willie back in his tiny apartment on upper Broadway being informed by Silverman that Lewis has come by “just to say hello.” Not to be found in bed, Clark insists on sitting up for the visit, which ends as the two characters leave the stage area still bickering.
References to Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Flip Wilson and “Marcus Welby” will be lost on today’s young people. Still, these two old codgers had the room in a state of nonstop merriment. Robbins’ comedic timing is a gift to cherish. Even Horsley, waiting her turn, was laughing along at the funny quips. Had he managed to attend, I believe Neil Simon, who’s of exactly the same generation, would have been guffawing along with the rest of us.
Two performances remain: next Saturday afternoon at the Salinas Californian building and again Sunday at the Monterey Museum of Art.