The SandPaper

Surflight’s ‘Grumpy Old Men’ May Take Away Any Grumpiness You Feel

Combines Junior High School Humor, Moments of Tenderness

COOT SUITS: John Gustafson (Michael McAssey, left) and Max Goldman (David Edwards) have been feuding for decades with no end in sight. (Photo by John Posada)

I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s magnificent seven ages of man speech from “Hamlet” while taking in “Grumpy Old Men,” Surflight’s current mainstage musical.

Babies come into the world “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.” Men then, in turn, become a whining schoolboy, a lover, a soldier and a justice before hitting their later years, when it turns out they were smart when they kept their old hose from their youth because they once again fit thanks to their shrunken shanks. Finally, they reach a second childhood, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

The two lead characters in “Grumpy Old Men,” John Gustafson (Michael McAssey) and Max Goldman (David Edwards), have reached the sixth stage while John’s father, “Grandpa Gustafson” (David Sitler) is entering his second childhood. Yet they, widowers all, seem to have returned to stage three and believe themselves to be lovers. Even Grandpa, who although he may well be on his way to sans eyes still has a glint in them.

A better name for this show would be “Horny Old Men.”

Oh, they were satisfied with ice fishing until a couple of new women came to the tiny town of Wabasha, Minnesota.

Ariel Truax (Margaret Shafer), a middle-aged English professor, stirs the loins of both John and Max. The two neighbors have been feuding for 50 years since John won the heart of a high school girl who they had both wanted to marry. The arrival of Ariel kicked that feud into a higher gear, especially since she seems to be somewhat of a libertine – she was seen moving a full-sized nude statue of her late husband into her house and it was decidedly full-sized if you catch my drift.

The other new woman in town is Sandra Snyder (Alison Nusbaum), an IRS agent intent on taking John’s house to pay for back taxes. She’s one mean bureaucrat who delights in her job, but Grandpa somehow delights in her.

There’s even more sexual tension in Wabasha. John’s daughter Melanie Norton (Larissa Klinger), who is leaving her husband, is attracted to Max’s son Jacob (Danny Crowe) and vice versa but a) there’s that Romeo and Juliet-like vibe, and b) they both want to get out of Wabasha, her to sunny California where it is warm, and him to NYC, where he can do a lot more with his legal degree.

So it isn’t surprising that sex jokes rule the show. There’s a funny scene when Max tries to teach Ariel to ice fish. Passersby – the townspeople spend a lot of time on the frozen lake – can’t help but hear the squeals emanating from his ice shack:

“It’s slippery, I can’t hold it,” screams an excited Ariel.

“Not so hard, not so hard, pull slowly,” Max orders her.

“I can’t, I need it now,” says Ariel.

“Let go of my rod,” begs Max.

“Not until I’m finished.”

“Faster, faster, faster.”

“I’ve never been so excited!”

“Oh, here it comes.”

They were, of course talking about pulling in a huge fish. That’s the type of humor in “Grumpy Old Men.” In fact, the largest audience laugh when I saw the show came when John was visiting Ariel and hung his umbrella on a certain part of her statue.

Yep, the show is filled with double entendre and more blatant sexual references. It could have been a disaster except …

Composer Neil Berg’s music is alternately lively and light and tender and serious. The same thing can be said of Nick Meglin’s lyrics. And the actors’ performances weren’t all camp.

McAssey and Edwards displayed good comic timing and seemed authentic when they had quieter moments. Shafer, Klinger and Crowe turned in wonderfully understated performances, badly needed to parry the near insanity of the feud. Another perfectly understated performance came from Marc Christopher, who played Chuck Barrels, the owner of the town’s bait shop/drugstore/restaurant/town hangout. Ashley Rubin was perfect as the sweet but air-headed Punky Olander, Chuck’s young cousin.

About the only qualm I had with Rick Grossman’s direction was the lack of any Minnesota accents, which can be hilarious to a set of New Jersey ears. “Fargo” the movie and the first season of the “Fargo” TV series made good use of accents, especially when they had characters of Asian descent saying “ya” in that almost Canadian way. So incongruous.

But, if that’s my biggest complaint I guess that means Surflight’s “Grumpy Old Men” was pretty solid, despite the show’s junior high school-level humor. Having grown up in tiny towns in sub-zero climates, I can guarantee seeing it is a lot more fun than ice fishing. At worst, it won’t leave you feeling grumpy.

“Grumpy Old Men” will run through Sept. 24. Visit the theater’s website at to find exact dates and times of each performance and to purchase tickets, which are $43 for adults and $33 for children 12 years of age and younger. Tickets may also be had at Surflight’s box office in Beach Haven.

 Rick Mellerup

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