Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" is light entertainment and nothing more. But it has some real challenges for actors.
Its two main characters, retired vaudeville comedians named Lewis and Clark, are longtime stage partners who apparently never liked each other once they left the theater. Years before the action of the play, Lewis had abruptly announced his retirement, leaving Clark alone, unemployed and embittered in a seedy New York hotel.
The central problem for the actors who play Lewis and Clark is that they have to be curmudgeonly, but not quite mean, and they have to be hostile to each other while they let the audience see that they really love each other. And they have to be funny while they're doing all that.
Bob Trisolini and Dan Higgs do an impressive job of achieving that balance in the Players Theatre production of "The Sunshine Boys," which runs through the end of this month.
Trisolini, as Clark, is especially entertaining, with a broad and presentational performance. He often seems to be addressing the audience directly, not the other actors, and that works in this case. It's as though he spent so much of his life onstage he doesn't know how to converse without cracking wise.
He and Higgs are most impressive in an early scene in the second act in which they re-create Lewis and Clark's most famous sketch. The actors have to make the audience believe that they were once one of the most famous comedy acts in the country, and their timing and delivery are strong enough that they can sell that idea.
There are problems that the actors can't overcome, though.
"The Sunshine Boys" is mid-tier Neil Simon play, neither one of his enduring classics such as "The Odd Couple" or "Brighton Beach Memoirs," nor one of his duds, such as "Star-Spangled Girl." Trisolini and Higgs do their best, but this play is at best amusing, and almost never hilarious.
The jokes, even the funny ones, and the style of the play feel awfully dated. "The Sunshine Boys" plays like an extended sketch, and you can see the sentimental punchline at the end coming at you through the Holland Tunnel.
That vaudeville sketch was supposed to seem hilariously old-fashioned when it played to audiences in the '70s. It loses some of its punch because the whole surrounding play now seems just as old-fashioned.
This show's still fun, though. The supporting cast is good (especially Alison Dietz, in a role that was intentionally politically incorrect even 40 years ago), as is the direction by Roberta McDonald.
You could hope for a few belly laughs, but a couple of hours of nostalgic smiles is not bad.
Details: Through June 3, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. June 13-15, 27 and 29, 2 p.m. June 16 and 30. Tickets: $18. Information: 941-365-2494, www.theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.