Friday, April 13, 2012

"Lost in Yonkers" - Wonderfully Found Again

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephen Kunken

Neil Simon's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-wining play Lost in Yonkers makes a triumphant return to New York City in this lovely and intimate revival presented by The Actors Company Theatre at the Off-Broadway Theatre Row Studios.

In 1942, newly widowed Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) must go on the road to earn enough money to pay off the medical bills from his wife's final illness. As a result, he is forced to leave his sons, thirteen-and-a-half year-old Arty (Russell Posner) and fifteen and a-half year-old Jay (Matthew Gumley), at the home of his mother, Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris), in Yonkers, New York. A tough woman, hardened by life, she and her family fled Germany at the onset of World War I. Since then, Grandma has buried her husband and two of her six children and now lives with her daughter Bella (Finnerty Steeves), a 35 year-old woman with the mind of a child. Grandma has also pushed her own children to become just as tough as she is and, as a result, wound up alienating all of them to varying degrees. This is why Eddie rarely brought Jay and Arty over to see her, not wanting them to be exposed to what he went through as a child. As for her other kids, Grandma has a caustic relationship with Bella; Gert (Stephanie Cozart) grew up with a breathing impediment, which seems to get worse whenever she's around her mother; and Louie (Alec Beard) learned his mom's lessons so well, he wound up becoming a gangster.

Grandma also has absolutely no desire take in Eddie's kids; certainly not relishing the thought of having children underfoot once again. However Eddie and Bella eventually bring her around her to accepting the idea. This decision paves the way for numerous heat-tugging moments, ones both comic and tearful, as everyone struggles to make the best of a difficult situation.

Given her background, the character of Grandma could easily have been a tyrannical woman, but in Simon's hands and Harris' presentation the character quickly becomes one with multiple shades of grey. Morphing into someone who can hear through walls; knowing what everyone in her family is thinking; and almost, but not quite, having a twinkle in her eye at times. This skillful blend of comedy and drama is the heart of what Lost in Yonkers is all about, showing a family dealing with the changing times around them while the text hops from one generational perspective to another. To his credit, Simon doesn't try to show which of the characters are in the right at any particular moment. Rather, he presents these vastly different people, all sharing a common heritage, and mixes their lives together to form a fascinating mulligan stew of family relationships.

The company also made a significant change in regards to how the play was originally presented, by removing Arty's various narrative explanations which were sprinkled throughout the script. This alteration, made with Simon's consent, results in bringing new life to the work, shifting it from a memory play to one with a more intimate connection and which also moves the story's focus away from Arty and places it on Grandma and Bella.

Harris wonderfully succeeds in making Grandma much more than a caricature, showing her to be full of passion and pain, and a woman who stopped caring simply because it hurt too much to do so. Despite her wish to withdraw from everything and everyone around her, she is still the lynchpin around which her family revolves, and who they're all is drawn to in times of need. Grandma's actions can also evoke a feeling of nostalgia with the audience, they perhaps seeing in her a persona recognizable from their own pasts and histories.

Just as powerful is Steeves' performance as Bella. A woman trapped by a physically maturing body and a limited metal faculty, Bella is someone who gets confused easily, especially when things don't go as planned. Such a family gathering where she tries to get everything arranged just so before she can deliver an important message. Since Bella doesn't have that much of an adult sense of tact, her emotional outbursts and little-girl-lost feelings cut deeper and resonate all the more strongly. Especially when she confronts her mother about the way her life is turning out.

Beard brings a menacing comic relief to the role of Louie. A mobster on the run, armed with a gun and mysterious black satchel containing his "dirty laundry," he enlists Jay and Arty in his plans to stay one step ahead of those chasing him. Louie also gets the best lines in the play, as he is more stereotypical than the rest of the cast and thus can get away with more over the top moments. He also does a wonderfully slow burn in the afore-mentioned family meeting, while still being able to turn into quite a menacing figure when circumstances warrant.

Gumley and Posner, their characters stands-ins for Simon and his brother Danny, work well here as kids thrust into a situation beyond their control while trying to make the best of things. Posner gets the funnier lines of the two, while Gumley, who tries to work every angle he can for someone his age, is more on the receiving end of Grandma's gaze and wrath, though he will stand up to her when circumstances warrant.

Comperatore works well as Eddie, a father trying to balance the pain of his past with the need to care for his children. Cozart does a nice turn as Gert in her few brief scenes ones which help to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of Grandma's actions, regardless of how noble or misguided they may have been.

Jenn Thompson's direction is excellent, keeping the play moving smoothly and the focus tightly fixed on the different aspects of the family. Thompson's touch is also evident in her working with the various actors to make Simon's words and situations come alive with maximum effect, thus making the audience care about the characters and their fates.

John McDermott's set is wonderful, filled with nice touches of a bygone era, especially the doilies on the furniture, which make for a running gag in the show. Costumes by David Toser are very nicely designed. Especially striking is the dress Bella "made herself" and the clothes Jay and Arty are wearing in the opening and closing scenes. Sound design by Toby Jaguar Algya nicely fits the period depicted.

Funny, tearful and nostalgic, Lost in Yonkers is one of the crown jewels in the Neil Simon canon and with the wonderful care taken in this production, it is definitely not to be missed – for any reason!

Lost in Yonkers
Written by Neil Simon

Featuring Matthew Gumley (Jay), Russell Posner (Arty), Dominic Comperatore (Eddie), Finnerty Steeves (Bella), Cynthia Harris (Grandma Kurtz), Alec Beard (Louie), Stephanie Cozart (Gert)

Production Stage Manager: Jack Gianino
Assistant Stage Manager: Michael Friedlander
Dramaturge: Rachel Merrill Moss
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Assistant Director; Lauren Miller
TACT General Manager: Cathy Bencivenga
Props: Lauren Madden
Press & Publicity: O&M Co.
Sound Design: Toby Jaguar Algya
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Martin E. Vreeland
Scenic Design: John McDermott
Director: Jenn Thompson
Presented by The Actors Company Theatre

Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row Studios

410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 10 Minutes
Closes: April 14, 2012

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