Reunited in grudge

By Eric Gallippo

Civic Players brings comic tale of stubborn actors

What’s bigger, a performer’s need to feed his ego or uphold his pride?

Find out when two old stars are asked to give up a long-standing grudge to reclaim the spotlight when Lansing Civic Players opens “The Sunshine Boys” this week.

The Neil Simon play tells the story of fictional long-running vaudeville team Willie Clark and Al Lewis, who grew to despise each other after 40 years in the business together. Now Willie’s nephew and agent is trying to get them to bury an 11-year-old hatchet to reunite for a TV special on the history of comedy.

“What I get out of it is sort of what happens when you’ve got hurt feelings,” director Kerry Waters said. “You’ve got two people who really care about each other, that were on stage together 43 years, then 11 years of being hurt and angry at each other. Can they rebuild the friendship? Can the act go on?”

In the role of Willie is Steve Shelton, a veteran of the Lansing stage. Playing opposite him is newcomer Charlie Ogar, a professional stand-up comedian who Waters said has “impeccable” comic timing. “Probably the hardest part has been taking Charlie, whose never done theater before, and giving him half the lines in the show,” Waters said. “But the man is a trooper.”

While the first inclination is to play these two grumpy old men way over the top, Waters said it’s important to that they have believable personalities when they’re not doing their act. “A lot of people would play these guys as caricatures, but these guys have made them into real people,” she said.

Although it seems there’s never a shortage of Simon on the Civic Players’ schedule (this is the second this season), Waters said audiences respond well to his work and request it. As it celebrates its 80th season, Waters says Civic Players is bringing back a lot of old audience favorites, many of which are by Simon. “Simon always has a little bit of everything,” Waters said. “There’s always meaning in there, always comedy.”

After a couple months of rehearsals, Waters said “The Sunshine Boys” has become “very dear to my heart” and may have eclipsed “Rumors” as her favorite work by the playwright, thanks in part to the work of those on stage. “Every night we find something we’re just cracking up about when we watch these guys,” Waters said. “Every night they make the characters more real and more loveable.”

’The Sunshine Boys’

23-Feb. 1 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday Lansing Civic
Players Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing $8-$15
(517) 484-9115