BEMIDJI - When one spends 43 years in a relationship, one learns to recognize which buttons can be pushed and which strings can be pulled.
In the Paul Bunyan Playhouse production of Neil Simon's endearing classic, "The Sunshine Boys," opening tonight onstage at the Chief Theater in downtown Bemidji, those buttons are pushed and those strings are pulled at a dizzying rate.
The repartee between all of the characters is rapid-fire and rich, flinging laughs to the audience so effortlessly and often it is easy to understand the popularity of this 40-year-old play, accounting in full for its longevity in theaters around the world. The snappy one-liners Simon is so well known for are abundant and entertaining, as always.
The rough as sandpaper quality of Steve Shaffer as Willie Clark, the cantankerous partner still fuming about his sudden and forced retirement from vaudeville, when compared to the smooth as silk exterior of Fred Wagner as Al Lewis, the reason for the early exit from the stage for this famous duo, results in the expected snags between these two temperaments, leaving obvious damage to both. When the opportunity to reunite for a television special arises, it brings the issues of 43 years of pushing and pulling to a head.
Willie has been alone in his shoddy hotel room for the last 11 years, marinating in his own frustration. Visits from his nephew/agent are his only release from silence. Enduring his uncle's rapier comments, Ben Tallen as Ben Silverman shines in his role as the caretaker of someone who cares little or not at all for himself or anyone else, or so Mr. Clark wants us to believe.
Spewing his venomous comments with snarky facial expressions and a wily yet awkward physical presence, you silently excuse Ben from his responsibility to this prickly relative, willing him to leave the latest edition of Variety and cigars on the table and run for the door, never to return.
But even the repeated mangling of his children's names by Uncle Willie cannot persuade Ben to remove himself from his uncle's employ and it is through this connection that Lewis and Clark finally get to hear of their opportunity to relive their glory days of yore - if they can only tolerate being on the same stage together again.
Meanwhile, Al Lewis has been living the life of a country gentleman in New Jersey, the main reason the George Washington Bridge should never have been completed, according to Willie. While Al resides fulltime in his daughter's home, he has never managed to actually "live" there, a circumstance made even more notable given his refusal to recognize how much he has given up for this peaceful existence.
Lewis makes us believe he is a man in control, a man satisfied with his life until he and Clark are finally brought together to rehearse their scene for the television special.
He tries to glide into Willie's life as smoothly as he departed it but can Willie accept his old partner's exit and make peace with it and him?
Watching the old vaudeville rhythms resume in the rapid fire dialogue between these two relics of a bygone era, the audience will be wishing the grey skies away for these sunshine boys.
Performances of The Sunshine Boys are underwritten by The Forestedge Winery and Paul Bunyan Communications.
Performances start at 8 p.m. and continue through June 30.
Tickets for evening performance are $22 for adults, $15 for students and $20 for groups of 10 or more. The 2 p.m. Sunday matinee performance tickets are $15 for all ages.
All tickets may be purchased through the Playhouse Box Office at 218-751-7270 or online at www.paulbunyanplayhouse.com