Actors shed light on ‘The Sunshine Boys’ characters
June 12, 2013
The name Neil Simon conjures up many plays including "Barefoot in the Park," "Plaza Suite," "The Goodbye Girl," "Lost in Yonkers" and, of course, "The Odd Couple."
For many, it also brings to mind "The Sunshine Boys."
The play premiered on Broadway in 1972 and is the story about a Vaudeville duo, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, who, after a bitter breakup after 40 years of working together, are convinced to reunite for a TV special.
The Neil Simon Festival, directed by Richard Bugg, will present "The Sunshine Boys" at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., from Thursday, June 13, through Sunday, June 16.
Bugg said the play is one of his favorites, but shied away from producing it until recently.
"I’ve long wanted to do this show, because it’s one of Simon’s great ones that focuses on this theatrical school of thought in the early 20th century that essentially pioneered the sitcom-format humor," Bugg told The Park Record during an interview just before rehearsals. "I’ve put it off in our seasons, because I wanted to get the right team of guys to play these two characters, and when I did, it felt like it was the right time."
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The actors Bugg referred to are David Meyers, who plays Lewis, and Eddie Mekka, who portrays Clark.
The two said getting into the characters was an enjoyable process.
"The period we’re examining in this play is the early 1970s," Meyers said. "These guys are in their late ’70s, and are contemporaries of the great comedy stars of the 1950s and 1960s, whose roots were in Vaudeville.
"I tell people that I’m playing the same role I have always played in roles past, but this time I’m leaving my makeup kit at home," he said with a laugh. "I tend to visualize people that I’ve seen or know and match character traits with a persona and ticks that I think apply. So, when I see this character, I see my mother’s cousins in Chicago, and I think I’m actually playing my Uncle Sam."
Mekka’s inspirations are also derived from his family.
"I feel like I’ve grown into this role," Mekka said. "I’m essentially playing myself — a grumpy old person who hates everyone. I’ve kind of become my grandfather and my father."
Mekka also finds himself mimicking other Vaudevillian characters in the production.
"I’m taking bits and pieces of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, who are essentially the same character, but in different eras."
The actor also watched the songs and dances of Eddie Kantor and Jimmy Durante.
"Their styles and timing rubbed off on me and I kind of incorporated myself into their acts," Mekka said. "Also, since Willie is an older guy, I can look as old and move as slow as I can and feel I’m getting better at it."
Both he and Meyers lament the fact that comedies today lack the Vaudeville touch.
"When you watch ‘The Honeymooners’ or the ‘Jack Benny Show’ you realize they don’t make comedy like that any more," Mekka said. "I mean, back then the humor was clean and didn’t rely on million-dollar sets. It was just people in the room that makes you laugh."
"This is a world that contemporary acting programs aren’t going to prepare you for and it’s a whole different thing," Meyers said. "It’s very presentational, bawdy and broad. It’s slapstick, crazy, silly stuff and the bottom line is all about the bits, the timing and giving the audience a show."
That’s what makes the writing in "The Sunshine Boys" interesting, he said.
"Neil Simon came out of that world," Meyers said. "He wrote comedy for ’50s TV and the style deals with the magic of three — set up, set up, pay off. He understands this intuitively, and he can keep the audience engaged and entertained and then put a storyline underneath about real people and real crisis."
Bugg, who also plays Clark’s nephew Ben in the production, is more than happy with how Meyers and Mekka have developed these characters.
"I looked for guys who understood the timing of this era, and who had a great respect for it as well, and these guys do," Bugg said. "The other night we sat around the kitchen table the other night talking and they brought up all these old jokes and references. You have to have a great appreciation for this period to play these characters."
The Neil Simon Festival will present "The Sunshine Boys" at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Thursday, June 13, through Sunday, June 16. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances begin at 8 p.m. A Saturday matinee will begin at 4 p.m. and Sunday’s show will begin at 6 p.m. Tickets range from $23 to $40 and are available at http://www.ParkCityshows.com.