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Lost in Yonkers

I have to have someone to love before I die. — Bella to her unloving mother.
Lost in Yonkers Pictured L to R: Finnerty Steeves, Matthew Gumley, and Russell Posner (Photo credit: Stephen Kunken.)
You could do a lot worse than seeing TACT/The Actors Company Theatre's revival of Neil Simon's 27th play, Lost in Yonkers (1991) at the company's intimate home on Theater Row. You're not going to like the tyranical, stingy Grandma Kurnitz. But, you'll see in the grandsons she unwillingly takes into her home all too timely parallels to children who are today falling outside the safety net of a stable home life.

Eddie, Jay and Arty's father, leaves them with their unwelcoming grandmother in order to pay off the debt incurred during their recently deceased mother's final illness. Grandma's domestic dictatorship includes a candy store below the apartment where a pretzel eaten rather than sold incurs her wrath. It's a joyless place but the boys are endearing survivors and to also grab you by the heartstrings there's love-starved Aunt Bella whose head is, as Jay observes is "closed for repairs."

Like the Brighton Beach plays, Lost in Yonkers is autobiographical However, the earlier plays were nostalgia smothered comedies, while Yonkers. . . is a serious drama with just enough Simonisms to let in some light. Jay and Arty, like the Jerome boys, are again younger versions of Simon and his brother Danny. However, their story is from a distinctly darker chapter of Neil Simon's memory book when he and his brother were farmed out to relatives during their parents' frequent marital separations.

But why Lost in Yonkers by TACT? After all, the company's declared mission is to mount neglected plays and Neil Simon made his reputation as a virtual Broadway hit machine. At one time, one or another of his comedies was always packing in audiences whose laughter often drowned out his unfailingly funny punch lines. Lost in Yonkers , while not his most successful play, ran for 780-performances at the Richard Rodgers Theater and won a Pulitzer.

Its Broadway and prize winning history notwithstanding, Yonkers. . . has never been revived on Broadway. Yet there's little or no likelihood of its making a Broadway comeback, even as revivals of plays of similar vintage show up, — to borrow a quote from Hamlet, "not as single spies but in battalions." You see, even Neil Simon's best plays have ceased being sure-fire hits. The last attempt to reignite his box office appeal, an in repertory revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound was a dismal failure (Brighton Beach Memoirs closed almost instantly and the second play never opened).

All this considered, Lost in Yonkers does indeed fit TACT's mission, not only to give audiences a chance to see neglected plays but to use their modestly sized home on Theater Row to give them a freshly considered staging Besides, assembling a fine cast, director Jenn Thompson, has intensified and broadened the play's emotional nuances, thanks to some Simon-authorized changes and John McDermott's set that cannily has a wider world overarching Grandma Kurnitz's narrow world

The main change Mr. Simon ok'd for this production seems to be the omission of the between scenes voice-overs of the letters from the boys' father. To be honest, I don't really recall the use of this device that clearly from the Broadway production. I'm therefore sure only that I had a deeper sense of the current Jay and Arty's need to cope with the permanent loss of their mother and temporary loss of their father and home than when I originally saw the play. The absence of those voice-overs may well have emphasized these dislocated children's abandonment at a time before technology could have helped them to at least feel more connected to their distant father.

In the original production the boys functioned mostly as narrative catalysts for the conflict between the needy Bella and the harsh, sour faced but equally damaged mother. Now the boys no longer seem to be pushing so hard to merge the big drama of an emotionally scarred mother passing her wounds on to her children. Instead their sibling dynamic and coming of age (and coming to understand and deal with the adults around them) is tightly integrated with the entire grandma-damaged ensemble.

As the boys serving what they view as a year-long sentence in the prison-like Yonkers apartment, Matthew Gumley as Jay and Russell Posner as Arty prove to be a winning combination of smart alecky wit, fearfulness and wide-eyed naivete. When their Uncle Louie (Alec Beard playing this gangster on the run as an aptly slick but not so smart Humphrey Bogart guy) comes on scene, the boys are intrigued by his "moxie." Ultimately, and most satisfyingly, however, it's Jay who has more moxie than his uncle and the scene when he stands up to Louie is one of the evening's highlights.

Vital as the boys are to the drama, the axis around which everything pivots is the cane-wielding Grandma, whose German accent has lingered along with her painful foot and the emotional scars from losing two of her children in Germany. Cynthia Harris is every bit the unsmiling, mostly silent and formidable ruler of everything that goes on in the apartment, not to mention in the unseen candy storey below where, as one character says, she'd know "if salt was missing from a pretzel. To touch her is indeed, as her touchy-feely daughter Bella puts it,"like touching steel."

As for the childlike 35-year-old Bella, Finnerty Steeves wins our affection and wish for her to get out from beneath her mother's life smothering domination. Dominic Comperatore and Stephanie Cozart have the least stage time; he as Eddie, Jay and Arty's bereaved and frazzled father and she as Gert, the asthmatic daughter who still can't breathe in her mother's presence. But both ably round out this family portrait of a family trying to survive despite unhealable wounds.

As John McDermott single set puts us up close, almost right inside, this sterile home without a lot of furnishings and just two openings in the black wall framing the apartment for entrances and exits, so Toby Jaguaralgya's incidental music contributes to the sense of two worlds undergoing great changes. David Toser's costumes are right on the mark, from the Hoover aprons to Bella's pink chenille robe.

I'll admit, that even though I'm not given to easy tears, my eyes were most by the time Jay and Arty's period of being abandoned to the care of their steely grandmother ended. Maybe, this is the play they should have chosen to bring Neil Simon back to Broadway three years ago. But then again, that means we wouldn't be seeing this excellent up close and freshly focused production from TACT. At any rate, I'd be happy to pull out the convertible in my spare room for a visit from this Jay and Artie any day.

Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon
Ddirected by Jenn Thompson
Cast: Cynthia Harris (Grandma Kurnitz), Alec Beard (Louie), Dominic Comperatore (Eddie), Stephanie Cozart (Gert), Matthew Gumley (Jay), Russell Posner (Arty), Finnerty Steeves (Bella)
Sets: John McDermott
Costumes: David Toser
Lights: Martin E. Vreeland
Sound: Toby Jaguaralgya
Properties: Lauren Madden
Stage Manager: Jack Gianino
Running Time: Approx 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
at the Beckett Theater 410 West 42nd Street 212/2396200
From 3/14/12; opening 3/22/12; closing 4/14/12
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2pm & 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20 - $56.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/17/12 press preview
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