Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

A Bench in the Sun
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Lee Cooley, Donna Kaufman, and Jim Coates
Photo by Stephanie Cartwright
There have been plenty of comedies that center on people with opposite personalities as they bicker and fight yet ultimately realize as they grow and learn from each other that they aren't that different after all. Ron Clark's play A Bench in the Sun, which is a cross between The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, fits perfectly into this style of play. It's a comedy set in a retirement home that focuses on three residents, and also a drama about the daily struggles and the joys in one's twilight years. Don Bluth Front Row Theatre has remounted their 2017 production with a talented trio of actors reprising their roles, including Lee Cooley and Jim Coates, who are perfect as the duo of bickering friends, and Donna Kaufman who is a mysterious former Hollywood actress who gives the two men something new to fight and argue over.

Harold and Burt, who have been friends since childhood, are currently residents at a retirement home. Their daily ritual consists of sitting outside on a bench as they argue, discuss, philosophize and bicker. Throughout the year-long time frame of the play, we learn that Burt used to work for Harold and that there was a period of over 40 years during which they didn't speak to each other. While Burt has conversations with his deceased wife in which he tells her he's going to bring up the incident in the past to Harold, we also find out that Harold has been married several times and his kids don't speak to him. When the once famous Hollywood actress Adrienne Bliss moves into the home, she pits the two men against each other for her affections while the threat of the retirement home being sold threatens their future.

Ron Clark wrote or co-wrote many successful TV shows and Hollywood comedies, including "The Danny Kaye Show," "That Girl," High Anxiety, and Revenge of the Pink Panther. While his script for this play has some good jokes and comic setups, it's also fairly simple and somewhat slight, and there really isn't that much that happens in the plot. There are many funny lines throughout, such as when Burt comments that "Retirement homes do everything to keep you alive and nothing to keep you living," and when Harold says he has two rules, "No tapioca pudding and no doctors." When Adrienne appears, Harold notes, "Movie stars don't age, they just grow more mysterious," while Burt replies, "I'll bet those aren't her teeth." The characters are written as mostly three-dimensional, though a bit more about Adrienne's past could be added to flesh out her character. There are some warm, tender moments, including a sweet dance number and a charming ending. However, the revelation of the secrets of the incident in Harold and Burt's past, the outcome of the threat of the home being sold, and a documentary that's being shot have minimal payoff.

Fortunately, even though the play is lacking in a few areas, it is still funny and charming and the cast in Don Bluth's production excels in making their characters realistic and the relationships they have with each other natural. Director Cheryl Schaar does a wonderful job of making sure there is an abundance of warmth in the funny moments and consistency in her cast's portrayals. Schaar also makes good use of the intimate space to stage the action, with the sound design ny Roger McKay providing funny sound effects and humorous scene change announcements. Corinne Hawkins' costumes are not only character specific but work well to depict the passage of time and change of seasons.

Jim Coates and Lee Cooley are simply perfect as Burt and Harold, respectively. While Coates is spot on as the crotchety cynic who never changes out of his pajamas, since it would mean he'd have to keep changing his clothes multiple times a day due to his frequent napping schedule, Cooley is just as good as the dapper Harold, who is always optimistic even though he's had three failed marriages and has to deal with knowing that Burt resents him. Coates and Cooley exhibit perfect comic timing and excellent physical comic abilities that work well to generate big laughs. Watching the two of them get into a fist fight, when Coates first has to help the physically-saddled Cooley up off the bench, or seeing how they struggle to move across the stage with a cane, shows that they've done their work to accurately depict both the humor and honesty of their characters. When they share an emotional moment, it is just as sincere and realistic as the funny, bickering scenes they have together.

As Adrienne Bliss, Donna Kaufman is appropriately funny and flirty and full of life, but we also know that there are secrets in Adrienne's life. When certain truths are revealed in the second act, a scene in the first act in which Adrienne is looking at some photos is made even more moving from Kaufman's honest, heartfelt emotions. Kaufman has a wonderful connection with her two co-stars and makes the relationship she has with each truthful, even though it's clear that Adrienne is using the two to her advantage.

A Bench in the Sun may not be entirely perfect, but it's a charming and funny play that is a love letter to lifelong friendships and also a witty and warm depiction of the curveballs, consequences, joys and reality that life throws at you during your twilight years. With a talented trio of actors and perfect direction and creative aspects, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre is presenting a winning production of this appealing and funny play.

A Bench in the Sun runs through September 18, 2021, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8989 E. Vía Linda #118, Scottsdale AZ. For more information on this production or to order tickets, please visit or call 480-314-0841.

Directed by Cheryl Schaar
Producers: Don Bluth and Cheryl Schaar
Scenic and Property Design: Cheryl Schaar
Lighting Designer: Cheryl Schaar and Bret Reese
Sound Designer: Roger McKay
Costumes: Corinne Hawkins
Stage Manager: Malcom Hooper

Burt: Jim "Doc" Coates
Harold: Lee Cooley
Adrienne Bliss: Donna Kaufman