Five Questions with Gary Hoffman
Gary Hoffman is one of the giants of Capital Region theater and he is opening a production of The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon at Schenectady Civic Players this Friday, playing the Clark half of the vaudeville team of Lewis & Clark. Gary can be found at theaters throughout the Capital Region; ACT, SLOC, SCP, NSCP, either acting, directing, loaning a prop or showing you to your seat. He is the invaluable utility player, talented, able and willing to pick up any opportunity to contribute wherever he is needed. I can’t wait to see him in this curdled comedy of two show biz pros who might not be able to abide each other long enough for one last swan song. I caught up with Gary to see what was on his mind.
What’s your history with Neil Simon?
My history with Neil Simon goes back to seeing the movie version of The Odd Couple when I was only 10 years old; I loved the premise, the dialogue, and the antics. I saw The Sunshine Boys, featuring Jack Gilford (who had succeeded Jack Albertson) and Sam Levene as the two retired vaudeville comics; I was 15 by then and loved seeing both of those actors whose own works I had always appreciated. Since then, I’ve tried to see, direct, or be in as many of Neil Simon’s plays and penned musicals as I can.
What do you think he has to say to us now?
I don’t know that he is trying to say anything to us now that he hadn’t already been saying during his prolific career. Had he lived on, I think Neil Simon would have written something along the lines of Laughter on the 23rd Floor in a contemporary vain, to cleverly assail the current political climate by holding up a satirical mirror to the dangerous decline we have witnessed.
What’s the play that changed your life and how?
I believe The Sunshine Boys was one of several Neil Simon plays that had an impact on my life. It gave me a greater understanding of vaudeville, but it also introduced me to the concept of pathos. This was a play written by Simon soon after his first wife had lost a battle with cancer; I think his own tragedy moved him to write with more realism. Instead of the two-dimensional caricatures many of his earlier comedies’ characters embodied, this play gave depth to the humor of the characters’ plight while concomitantly revealing layers of sadness, mixing some tears with the laughter. I believe that combination has given me the sensitivity and awareness to be a better actor and a better director.
Favorite theater experience this past summer?
My favorite theater experience this summer was having the opportunity to direct a fine cast in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for Clifton Park-based Not So Common Players. Outdoor theater is fun, and NSCP productions are always free, so the audiences are very appreciative of the fare being performed. Forum is farcical, pure entertainment, and has a fast pace that tends to leave patrons wanting more once it’s over. Noteworthy of this particular production, though, was that the Wednesday afternoon before we were to reopen for our second weekend, vandals had done significant damage to our set. When a call went out for help to make some quick but extensive repairs, more than three dozen volunteers from the capital region’s community theater community showed up to repair and paint the set in time for the next evening’s reopening. It was gratifying and heartening to see and experience, particularly in the wake of the senseless destruction.
How do you think Covid has affected Capital Region theater?
COVID has unquestionably taken something of a toll on community theater. Most community theaters are, by their nature, not-for-profit entities, and most of their income is from ticket sales. When theaters had to lock their doors and shutter their windows for the 2020-2021 season, the flow of income dried up significantly. As bills for upkeep still had to be paid, conditions caused great strains on financial resources that were not too robust to begin with. When area theaters reopened last fall, productions had to be less elaborate to accommodate leaner budgets. Casts had to be smaller to foster safer conditions for performers and patrons alike, which corresponded with limited seasons. The occasional outbreak of COVID within a cast often meant a director would have to direct via Zoom, or an entire season’s production schedule would have to be modified. Audiences have been smaller, as many patrons still have health concerns about attending indoor theater, consequently slowing down the replenishing of coffers. However, while the toll has been palpable, the volunteers who sit on theaters’ boards have risen to the occasion to find ways to continue bringing entertainment to audiences who, because of COVID, have had an even greater need for diversion. Online programs and open air events were devised and presented to keep audiences entertained and encourage donations. Moreover, such efforts also put out the message that community theater may have been down, but it was definitely not out. As little by little, area theaters inch their way back to normal (or the so-called new normal), more and more patrons are returning and venturing back. The theater seats have been dusted off, and area curtains are once again poised to go up.
The Sunshine Boys
By Neil Simon
Directed by Amy Sarah LaMena
Schenectady Civic Players
September 16-18 & 21-25, 2022
FRI/SAT 8:00 PM
WED/THU 7:30 PM
SUN 2:30 PM
Tickets: www.civicplayers.org or 518-382-2081