Cliff Stephens and Lee Jamison try but can’t save sagging jokes in Starbright & Vine at Stage West.
Cliff Stephens and Lee Jamison try but can’t save sagging jokes in Starbright & Vine at Stage West.
Buddy Myers

Stage West Gets Stuck in the Shtick of Starbright & Vine

See if this plot sounds familiar: Cranky old Jewish comic whose career is kaput is asked to appear for big bucks on a TV special honoring comedy legends. He balks. He picks fights with his writing partner. They argue, make jokes and make amends, and finally do the act. The show goes on, the curtain comes down.

Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, right? The 1976 movie version starring Walter Matthau and George Burns is on Turner Classics pretty often. A theatrical revival starring Jerry Van Dyke and his brother Dick as the two alter kocker comics played here in 2011 to sell-out crowds at the Eisemann in Richardson.

Either Fort Worth playwright Richard J. Allen, who teaches film and TV at TCU, has never heard of or seen The Sunshine Boys or he's hoping the rest of us haven't. His Starbright & Vine, a too obvious Sunshine Boys redux, is getting its world premiere at Fort Worth's Stage West, directed and designed by Jim Covault. Aged comedian Marty Vine, played by Matthau-like actor Cliff Stephens, is invited to appear on a Kennedy Center TV show honoring past comedy greats. He doesn't want to do it, then he does. But he's a schnorrer, making everyone cater to his whims. And for the two-plus hours of Allen's play, he's a nonstop shtick machine, slowing down his f-word-laced patter only when his fading memory hints that he's suffering symptoms of dementia.

For his play, Allen has changed the George Burns character into a hot young woman comedy writer named Jackie (Lee Jamison, working her keister off to sell lousy dialogue). She's been hired by Marty's mamzer son Blake (Randy Pearlman) to create a new routine for Marty for the TV gig, though the old man swears he can't remember new lines. Allen's also given Marty a Milton Berle-like reputation as a skirt-chaser. He has a barely legal live-in girlfriend (Audrey Ahern, fresh-faced enough to look like jailbait) and a string of past extra-marital romances, including one long-ago affair with Jackie's mother. (No, Jackie isn't his long-lost daughter, which is a good thing to know when playwright Allen gets to the scene in which Marty gets Jackie farshnickert on Scotch and lays a big wet kiss on her. On opening night, the audience let out a collective "ewwww" of disgust.)

Simon's play about fictional comedy team "Lewis and Clark" was based on vaudeville two-acts like Gallagher and Shean, and Smith and Dale. Allen's Marty Vine has more in common with Jerry Lewis (note his red socks, a Lewis affectation), Shecky Greene and Jack Carter, comedy superstars of the 1960s.

What's great about The Sunshine Boys, one of Simon's best scripts, right up there with The Odd Couple, is the rat-a-tat rhythm of Catskills-style punchlines worked into contentious conversations between Lewis and Clark. To wit:

Clark: I'm still in demand. I'm still hot.

Lewis: If this room were on fire, you wouldn't be hot.

There's nothing that funny in the too witless Starbright & Vine. "I was taking a leak," says Marty Vine, coming out of the bathroom, "not translating Nietzsche." The show begins and ends with Marty doing his old standup routine and then his new one. They both stink.

Stephens, Jamison and Pearlman are good actors slumming it with this mediocre evening of schlock. If the playwright thinks nobody will notice similarities to the better play, he's meshugener.


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