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Old jokers have a way with old jokes

The knock against Neil Simon, before he started writing "serious" comedies, was that his plays were just a string of gags. Several Simon comedies -- especially "The Odd Couple" -- were very funny. But with "The Sunshine Boys" -- the first nonmusical at Northport's Engeman Theater in a season and a half -- gags are the lifeblood of its title characters.

"You know what your problem was, Willie? You took the jokes too seriously." That's the diagnosis of Al Lewis, former partner in comedy with Willie Clark. The septuagenarians known as Lewis and Clark haven't spoken to each other in 11 years -- since Lewis announced he was retiring. Willie wasn't ready to retire. His agent-nephew Ben tries to keep Willie engaged. Every Wednesday, he brings him a copy of Variety. He delivers scripts and arranges auditions for commercials. But Willie can't remember the product's name. Frito what?

This time, Ben has big news. CBS is doing a special on vaudeville-era comics. They want Lewis and Clark to perform one of their classic skits.

"I'm busy," Willie says.

"Doing what?" Ben says.

"Saying no!"

Willie eventually relents, and the geezer comics rehearse in Willie's messy Upper West Side hotel apartment (set by Jonathan Collins, complete with a dial telephone and remoteless TV; period costumes by Tricia Barsamian). It's 1972. Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball -- all of whose names are dropped -- are still alive, as are Jack Albertson and Sam Levene, who starred as Broadway's original "Sunshine Boys," and Walter Matthau and George Burns, who played them in the movie.

At the Engeman, Lewis and Clark are brought to life by a pair of Broadway veterans who portrayed a pair of Yiddish comics last season in "The People in the Picture."

Lewis J. Stadlen plays irascible Willie as if he forgot that he couldn't remember. As directed by BT McNicholl, Stadlen's Willie is sharp as a tack when it comes to cracking jokes -- it's his Geritol youth serum -- or rhapsodizing on why words with a K are funny.

Chip Zien as his more reserved partner plays the passive-aggressive with a convincing "Who me?" shrug -- a fine foil for Stadlen's parry. Their doctor-patient skit crackles with over-the-top humor -- like old-time religion with cleavage (sketch nurse Christina Calph).

Frank Vlastnik as Ben, the role Stadlen originated on Broadway 40 years ago, makes a comically harried straight man.

If you like Neil Simon at his joke-churning best, "Boys" will be your sunshine.

WHAT Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 25, at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.

INFO $50;, 631-261-2900


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