This is how you make old jokes new:
Have David Green and Peter Van Norden tell them.
The two played the battling former comedy partners in Friday's opening night of Arizona Theatre Company's tasty production of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys."
Green played the more mild-mannered, less bitter, but still biting Al Lewis, who walked away from his partner after 43 years of doing vaudevillian shtick together. He was tired.
But his partner, Willie Clark (Van Norden), loved the footlights, the laughs, the smell of stage makeup. Eleven years after Lewis left, Clark is still angry. Look up the word "curmudgeon" and you'll see his picture there.
Green and Van Norden got into a delicious rhythm as they dropped one clever line after the other, and even a few cornballs. They both were so well-rooted in their characters that they became the comedy team.
Here's the thing about Neil Simon: Sometimes he seems more intent on being funny than being substantive. And certainly this play can go that way.
Sure, director David Ira Goldstein did not miss a chance to squeeze a laugh out of the audience. And Green and Van Norden are polished comic actors who used every trick in the book to milk a line, a look, a gesture.
But the funny was met with the poignant. Goldstein's respect for the material and the actors commitment to it allowed the tenderness and depth that Simon wove into "The Sunshine Boys" to tiptoe out and suddenly take your breath away.
The two characters are advancing in years. Their bodies are failing them; their minds, too. But their spirits? Their spirits have not aged. Simon's unflinching look at old age and the indignities and inevitabilities of it are wrapped up in a humor that keeps coming in waves, but never really hides that this is who we become. "The Sunshine Boys" nonjudgmentally reveals ways to approach those gaining years: We can rail against them, which is what Clark does; or we can take an almost Zen approach, quiet and accepting but without ever losing the passion. That's what Lewis does.
The result is a play that fills one with delight and a bit of longing.
ATC regular Bob Sorenson did a journeyman's job in his supporting role as Willie's caring nephew, though he was forever upstage by his awkward wig.
University of Arizona senior Caitlin Stegemoller had a small role as a buxom nurse subjected to all sorts of leers in a vaudevillian routine that Lewis and Clark made famous and are now planning to do again for a one-time television special. Stegemoller, tall and gorgeous and wearing an overworked push-up bra under her low-cut, very short nurse's uniform, was a complete hoot. We predict good things artistically in her future.
• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys."
• Director: David Ira Goldstein.
• When: Performances are 2 and 7 p.m. today; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. next Sunday. Continues through March 23.
• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
• Cost: $35-$89.
• Reservations/information: 622-2823.
• Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.