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July 4, 2010

Comic team pleasure to watch

SONORA -- A few years after Neil Simon achieved massive success with his hit comedy "The Odd Couple," he wrote a spin on the same idea in "The Sunshine Boys."

"The Odd Couple" focused on mismatched roommates, but "The Sunshine Boys," running at Stage 3 Theatre, centers on a mismatched comedy team.

The show is satisfying in the same way -- it pokes fun at the personality clash while never letting the fighting become too bitter and always including plenty of heart.

Set in the early 1970s, the play centers on a vaudeville comedy team invited to perform one of their most popular routines on a TV special about the history of comedy. The only trouble is that Willie Clark and Al Lewis hate each other and haven't spoken in 11 years.

The 1975 movie version starred George Burns and Walter Matthau as the dueling comics.

As directed by Maryann Curmi, it's a pleasure to watch the back-and-forth between Lloyd Battista (Clark) and Don Bilotti (Lewis) in the Sonora staging. Battista is the hyper one, constantly getting into temper tantrums over people who annoy him. He repeatedly tries to one-up his partner, making sure that he always takes center stage. Bilotti is quieter but ruthless at hurling witty barbs.

The two are among the most talented actors in the region. Battista has a long list of professional credits on TV, including performing in the CBS soap opera "Love of Life," the miniseries of James Michener's "Texas" and making guest appearances on such shows as "Here's Lucy," "Mission Impossible" and "Perry Mason."

Playing the voice of reason who mediates between the crazy comedians is Joseph Conn as Clark's nephew and agent, Ben. Conn is kind and patient and usually keeps his cool in the face of the senior citizens' misbehavior.

The weakest part of the show is in the second half when Lewis and Clark perform a classic vaudeville sketch. The humor hasn't aged well and seems more corny than hilarious today.

Working with a very small space, set designer Ron Cotnam effectively manages to conjure up a cramped New York apartment, a hotel and a TV studio. Old-fashioned suits, hats and bow ties are among the period-perfect costumes provided by Debbie Otts.

Simon's humor resonates because everyone can relate to it. People love him because he helps them find a way to laugh at life's challenges, from long-standing arguments to the frustrations of aging.

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Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at or 578-2313.

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