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Review: ‘The Boys in Autumn’

Pat Sajak gets a round of applause when he drives out on stage. Joe Moore gives a convincing career-best performance as a man wracked by guilt. The Hawaii Theatre Center’s production of “The Boys In Autumn” plays this weekend with two major gimmicks in effect but turns out to be surprisingly substantial theater.

The first gimmick, of course is the casting. Moore is the long-time ratings king of Hawaii television news anchors. Sajak is the emcee of one of the most successful game shows in television history. Both men are donating their time and covering their own expenses and production costs for this HTC fundraiser.

It always takes a moment or two to get past Moore’s unmistakable voice and get into the story, no matter what type of character he’s playing, but sooner or later the character takes over and we’re no longer watching Joe Moore act. Moore has steadily taken on roles that demand more of him in recent years and he does so successfully here.

As for Sajak, if he didn’t have one of the best jobs in television he would be a natural as a comic actor. He makes great use of some good material in “Boys.”

THE SECOND gimmick is the story. Playwright Bernard Sabath’s tale of two old friends reconnecting at the far end of middle age contains universal themes. Who doesn’t have regrets about something they did or didn’t do as they look back at their life from the age of 55 or 60?

The gimmick aspect is Sabath’s appropriation of two of the most iconic “boys” in American literature — Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — as his characters. On one hand, that gives the audience an instant connection with the characters and a personal investment in their well-known back stories. American kids have been growing up with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for more than a century.

On the other hand, what would Mark Twain say about the further “adventures” Sabath envisioned for the characters he created more than a century ago? What would he think of the lives Sabath created for them?

Sabath’s premise is this: Tom Sawyer, who vanished many years before and has been living under an assumed name, returns to Hannibal looking for Huck sometime in the mid-1920s. He encounters an anti-social paranoid recluse who turns out to be Huck – who is also living under an assumed name.

They talk, they argue, they almost come to blows, and then they work their way through their respective demons and regrets. Most are laid to rest.

Give Sabath credits for scenes in which we see Tom as Twain wrote him – spinning tales and dreams and improbable schemes with die-hard optimism. Give Moore and Sajak credit for the ease with which they jump into the moments where they play Huck and Tom in their carefree youth.

DIRECTOR GLENN CANNON and his talented two-man cast also transition neatly between the darker emotionally charged moments and the lighter ones. To describe the former would be to destroy the surprises Sabath intends to be part of the experience. As for the latter, one of the best comes when Tom tries to teach Huck a vaudeville routine. Moore shows himself adept at physical comedy as well.

Set aside the issue of Sabath’s appropriation of Twain’s characters rather that, say, starting from scratch with characters of his own creation, and “Boys” is an enjoyable encounter with two accomplished entertainers.

Andrew Doan (Set Design) and Rick Crum (Lighting Design) enhance the performers’ work with a beautiful house and porch set and subtle changes in lighting. Hanale Ka‘anapu (Sound Design) adds an important sense of place with the whistles of passing steamboats and the hooting of nearby owls. Tom Sawyer’s car is another important element in the story and in the theatrical experience on stage as well.

‘The Boys in Autumn’
» Where: Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St.
» When: 7:30 p.m. today; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
» Cost: $17 to $72 (discounts available); $72 VIP tickets include premium seating and autographed playbill/photograph
» Info: 528-0506 or www.hawaiitheatre.com

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