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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers at Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of Barefoot In the Park

Lost In Yonkers
Sara Surrey and
Rosemary Prinz

It is likely that Lost in Yonkers will become one of the classic plays of the American theatre. It certainly feels that way when viewing the illuminating production directed by Michael Bloom that is now on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 1991, the time seems right for its inclusion in speculation about which plays are ripe for a Main Stem revival. It is difficult to imagine a Lost in Yonkers more satisfying than the regional theatre production at hand.

Written by Neil Simon at the height of his matured creative skills, the play is an extraordinary blending together of comedy and drama. All too often in plays with this admixture, there is an unevenness of tone, a jarring switchover from one modality to the other. Here the shifts in mood are a seamless part of the fabric. Most heady are those moments when humor and emotion are simultaneously conveyed.

Lost in Yonkers chronicles the eight months beginning in August, 1942, that adolescent brothers Jay and Arty lived with their paternal grandmother and her unsteady thirty-five year old, moderately retarded daughter Bella in an apartment above Grandma Kurnitz' candy store in Yonkers, New York. Their mother had recently succumbed to cancer. During her illness, their father Eddie borrowed from loan sharks in order to pay for her health care. Now he has found a job that will enable him to pay off his debt, but it requires him to travel throughout the South. Hence, Jay and Arty's sojourn with their Grandmother.

Grandma Kurnitz is a cold, fearsome martinet who has scarred the lives of each of her four living children. Jay and Arty ridicule the dysfunctional behaviors of each of their paternal relatives. Their aunts and uncle, a professional criminal, teach them about the importance of family. And their Aunt Gert suffers hyperventilation, most prevalently when Grandma is around. Bella has needs that her mother will not allow her to pursue.

The exploration of the maturation of Bella and its effect on Grandma is gut wrenching, powerful and inspirational. It is directed here in a clear, unfussy manner. Rosemary Prinz fully exposes the complex, twisted minefield that is Grandma Kurnitz. Surely, there are reasons for her strange ideation. Even more than with most people, no one can ever truly know Grandma. By not softening the portrayal of Grandma, Prinz and director Bloom allow audiences to draw their own conclusions about Grandma and her explanation of her behavior. Simon embraces loving and forgiveness. For me, this is a bit of a stretch given the extreme behavior of Grandma Kurnitz.

Sara Surrey brilliantly manages to clearly convey the myriad sides of the convoluted, warm and loving Bella with a very narrow range of (large) gestures and vocal colors. In a role that was indelibly performed in a very intricate manner in the original production (by Mercedes Rule), Surrey has found a new approach to achieve a very effective result.

Much of the humor is in the hands of Alex Wyse (Jay) and Maxwell Beer (Arty). If these young actors were a comedy team, Wyse would be the straight man to Beer. Even during the scenes most fraught with drama, Simon doesn't forget our funny bones. As when Jay tells Arty in the penultimate scene, "I feel sorry for everyone in this family, even Grandma."

J. Anthony Crane is on target with a richly comic performance in the role of Uncle Louie. The role is a bit Runyonesque, and Crane captures that style of humor accurately. John Plumpis as Eddie gives a dimensional, evocative performance and Patricia Buckley efficiently completes the ensemble as Aunt Gert.

Michael Bloom, artistic director of the Cleveland Play House, has directed a firm, uncluttered production. At times, his emphasis on the strivings of a troubled family to overcome their limitations together with their social background evoked memories of plays by Clifford Odets.

The large, very detailed, evocative set has been designed by Michael Schweikardt.

Lost in Yonkers deftly closes the gap between popular entertainment and serious theatre to provide a most satisfying experience.

Lost in Yonkers continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday. & Thursday. 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sun. 7 pm; Matinees. Thursday, Saturday & Sunday 1:30 pm) through March 14, 2010 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343. Online: www.papermill.org.

Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon; directed by Michael Bloom

Cast
Jay..................................................Alex Wyse
Arty............................................Maxwell Beer
Eddie..........................................John Plumpis
Bella..............................................Sara Surrey
Grandma Kurnitz.....................Rosemary Prinz
Louie.....................................J. Anthony Crane
Gert........................................Patricia Buckley


Photo: Peter Jennings


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- Bob Rendell



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