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Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Lost in Yonkers
Old Globe Theatre

Also see Bill's review of Whisper House

Lost in Yonkers
Austyn Myers and Steven Kaplan
The Old Globe has selected a challenging production to inaugurate its new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers requires an expert cast that can play humor and pathos, and pull off credible dramatic elements as a Jewish family doing its best to survive during World War II. The cast and creative team have succeeded admirably, while in the process revealing a bit of creakiness in the play itself.

The new space copies to a great extent the former Cassius Carter Center Stage in size and arena configuration, but tearing down the old and starting over has allowed for space underneath the stage, vomitorium entrances in two corners that eliminate the need to make entrances down a set of steps, six aisles through the audience instead of four, and a much higher ceiling that allows for more sophisticated lighting designs than were previously possible.

The designers have taken advantage of all of these elements. Associate Artist Ralph Funicello placed windows on all sides of the audience to make it appear as if we are spying on a family in difficulty and then raised those windows to reveal the family's living/dining room featuring a staircase down to the shop below. Lighting Designer Matthew McCarthy easily simulated different times of the day and provided for smooth scene shifts as well. Sound Designer Paul Peterson made the room's radio into a dramatic device (and if the actors were miked, I didn't notice it). Costume Designer Alejo Vietti blended the muted hues of the furniture with clothes of similar hues, except when a character's nature demanded brighter colors.

The house belongs to Grandma Kurnitz (Judy Kaye), who runs the shop below with the help of her live-in daughter, Bella (Jennifer Regan). Into their lives comes son Eddie (Spencer Rowe) and his two boys, Jay (Steven Kaplan) and Arty (Austyn Myers). Eddie's wife has recently died of cancer, and Eddie has accumulated a large amount of debt as her hospital bills came due. He has decided to become a traveling salesman to raise the money to pay off his debts, but he needs a place for the boys to stay while he goes on the road for an extended period of time. Grandma Kurnitz escaped from Germany, and she always had a reputation for being hard and mean. Still, Bella manages to persuade her to allow the boys to stay. While Eddie struggles with health and other issues during his travels, Bella and the boys plot to escape Grandma's clutches. Eventually, the whole family gathers, including Louie (Jeffrey M. Bender), Grandma's other son and a local thug, and Gert (Amanda Naughton), Grandma's other daughter, who has been so traumatized by Grandma's behavior toward her that she can't breathe properly in Grandma's presence.

Director Scott Schwartz has polished his expert cast's performances to achieve a level of naturalism not usually found in even the best regional theatre productions. Every move, gesture, line delivery and reaction seem to have been carefully thought through and thoroughly ingrained into how each member of the cast performed with the others. Mr. Schwartz's direction also made excellent use of the new space, down to the traveling Eddie sending and receiving letters from his sons in each of the audience aisles. Even the dialects (as coached by Jan Gist) sound quite specific.

The play, however, has its flaws. The first act is brilliant. The dialogue crackles, the laugh lines are carefully written, and the situations are set up to a tee—it has all of the elements of a "well made play." The second act, however, goes downhill. The subplot with Uncle Louie drags and is repetitive, Bella's dalliance with a movie usher is overwritten, Gert's function as comic relief repeats the same joke a couple of times too often, and there's a certain mushiness about the dénouement that belies the first act setup. After his autobiographical trilogy of plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound), it would not be unreasonable for Mr. Simon to run out of gas in crafting a fourth play based on characters from his family.

Still, the Old Globe's production represents a fine opening for its new space, as well as presaging the kind of quality we might expect from future productions.

The Old Globe presents Lost in Yonkers, by Neil Simon, through February 28 in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. For performance and ticket information, visit www.theoldglobe.org/.

Directed by Scott Schwartz with scenic design by Ralph Funicello, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Matthew McCarthy, and sound design by Paul Peterson. Casting by Samantha Barrie, CSA, Vocal and Dialect Coach Jan Gist, and Stage Manager Diana Moser.

With Steven Kaplan, Austyn Myers, Spencer Rowe, Jennifer Regan, Judy Kaye, Jeffrey M. Bender, and Amanda Naughton.


Photo: Craig Schwartz

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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