Lost in Yonkers
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
February 28, 2010
The revival of Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon's 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, currently running at Paper Mill Playhouse, is a well-mingled combination of comedy, whimsical nostalgia, and deep-seated anguish. The play is an extraordinarily heartfelt American story that is at the same time hilarious and touching.
It's 1942 and Simon's story follows two teenage brothers, Arty (the endearing Maxwell Beer) and Jay (an awkward and appealing Alex Wyse), and their dysfunctional extended family during nearly a year of their formative lives. The mood is set before we even enter the theatre with period music playing outside and in the lobby.
The boys' beaten-down and recently widowed father Eddie, portrayed with humor and sincerity by John Plumpis, must find a job in order to climb out of serious debt. His best opportunity is to travel selling scrap metal for the war effort in the South. He has no choice but to leave his two reluctant sons in the care of his domineering mother, the stern German Grandmother Kurnitz (a frightening and funny Rosemary Prinz) and the boys' simple-minded though kindly Aunt Bella (a thoroughly winning Sara Surrey).
It is this mother-daughter relationship that drives the story and changes Jay and Arty's lives forever. Grandma is cold and stern. Her cruel childhood in Germany has caused her to raise her own children in an oppressive environment. But now, her youngest daughter Bella, who has stayed home above the family sweet shop to care for her aging parent, wants to get married and have children and a life of her own. Things get more dicey with the arrivals of Uncle Louie, a suspected small-time gangster on the lam (played by the simultaneously charming and slimy J. Anthony Crane) and Aunt Gert (a very funny Patricia Buckley) who suffers from speech impediments and breathing trouble that may be more psychosomatic than real. This is one dysfunctional family and one terrific ensemble!
Michael Bloom's excellent direction keeps the pace rolling, the comic timing perfect, and the story steadily and entertainingly unfolding. The New York dialects, while uneven at times, are understated and perfectly understandable. Bloom manages to keep Simon's hilarious characters truthful and at the forefront, beautifully bringing to life the humorous, albeit at times bleak, world of Grandma Kurnitz's Yonkers apartment.
David Kay Mickelson's pleasing period costumes, Michael Schweikardt's authentically detailed set, and Paul Miller's sepia toned lighting seamlessly blend and artfully set off what is now considered to be one of Simon's best works.
Grandma Kurnitz's super-tough-love approach to child rearing often threatens to destroy the young boys' lives, but they come away from their experiences having learned important lessons in life and in love. This is a coming-of-age story for them as well as for their childlike Aunt Bella who at age 35 is finally able to find her voice.
Lost in Yonkers only runs until March 14th so take advantage of this superb family friendly production while you still can. Everyone will find it well worth the trip.