“Lost In White Plains” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It had to be Yonkers – or, say it all together now: “Yahn-kahs” – that Big Apple burb of bustling immigrant life into which Neil Simon’s two rascally young protagonists are suddenly plunked down. They’ve been delivered to the place where laughter is snatched out of the air, where wrinkles are slapped smooth, and where dreams go to die a humdrum death. They’ve been delivered to Grandma’s.
Believe it or not, this Lost in Yonkers marks Theater J’s first adoption of a full-length Neil Simon play. You’d never know it from the company’s levelheaded and beguiling work on this, one of a number of Simon’s winsome fever dreams about growing up Jewish-American a few generations ago, at a time when kids tossed footballs to each other in empty lots while World War II rumbled on the horizon.
Notes of nostalgia aren’t as sweet here as they are in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Simon’s other truly great meditation on family and young hope. It’s a stark family portrait of brothers Jay and Arty: a dead mother, a broke father (Kevin Bergen) who must give them up for a year on the road selling scrap, and an unforgiving German grandmother (the marvelously acerbic Tana Hicken) who, with her successful neighborhood candy shop and loft apartment to boot, happens to tend the only safe haven around.
With wit, humor, and a hearty dose of exposition, Jay (an aporetic Kyle Schliefer) and little Arty (Max Talisman, brimming with zippy one-liners) step cautiously into an ossified lifestyle we all recognize from the homes of our own ancestors. The air is thick with do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) and one false move will put them right out onto the street again. Grandma – her hair in a tight gray bun, her big glasses pinched to a withering gaze – doesn’t seem to be joking. “You won’t be happy here,” she sneers. “And unhappy boys I don’t need.”
But despite her grim prognoses, Grandma turns out to be the only sour cherry in the bowl, as everyone around her coasts in and out of the apartment on a wave of good humor. Lost in Yonkers plays like a rekindled memory, and the cast fans the flames throughout with nimble, affectionate character work. The set, too, is homey and inviting. Scenic Designer Daniel Conway has crafted a cozy, realistic interior that, with the help of Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting, absorbs golden sunlight by day and exudes a chilly lunar brilliance at night.
As one might expect, it’s the wacky relatives that flesh out the comedy. Although she isn’t given much to work with, Lise Bruneau is charming as Aunt Gert, whose bizarre nervous breathing habits keep Arty and Jay snickering long after the gag’s grown thin for the rest of us. She arrives late in the play, amusing but sadly underutilized in Simon’s script.
More crucial to the proceedings is the renegade uncle Louie. Marcus Kyd brings a grin and a swagger to the role, ribbing the lost boys for their green ways and employing the word “moxie” with no reservations. Louie has snuck back to Grandma’s house to hide out for a while, dismissing his shadowy cause as “a minor neighborhood problem.” His conversations with Arty and Jay hold a tensive tone – even the fun crooks carry loaded guns – and it’s here that director Jerry Whiddon is most adept at fine-tuning the cast’s timing and flow.
As fun as the wisecracking boys are, the real drama resides in the women, particularly in Grandma’s struggle to tame the tireless optimism of Aunt Bella (Holly Twyford, reuniting with Hicken after last year’s The Road To Mecca at Studio Theatre). Like Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Bella has been cooped up well into her prime, but unlike Tennessee Williams’ antiheroine, Bella is loud, blunt, and talkative, continually fascinated by the facts and fictions she’s spun into personal truth. Within Grandma’s noiseless home, she is at once an innocent and a transgressor. Jay and Arty veer from amusement to confusion and back as they observe their childlike aunt gushing with manic joy about the details of daily life, even as she is kept from truly living. It is Bella’s journey to independence, rather than the boys’, into which we end up investing the most concern.
Like a great number of Simon’s characters, the Yonkers clan are written as living legends. Whether hero or villain, their reputations precede them into the room, and it takes a conscientious group of artists to discover how to play to type for laughs without surrendering to caricature. The touch isn’t always subtle — some moments of explosive glee and slack-jawed incredulity feel too much like mugging for the camera — but some faint traces of artificiality are appropriate given the degree to which these family members are performing for each other. Louie comes off as a gangster, in part, for the sake of the boys. Bella, too, is hungry for love. Even Grandma, when alone, may allow herself some genuine feeling.
We are still in a position to laugh at Bella when she speaks lovingly of home. “Big families are important for when you have trouble in your life,” she grins. But as the spectacle dissolves and we grow to know her better, we realize how crucial this simple belief remains. Often, Bella only hears what she wants to hear, but it is her steadfastness that holds the group together. If the alternative is losing your roots, maybe it’s best to stay planted for a while after all.
Lost In Yonkers
by Neil Simon
directed by Jerry Whiddon
produced by Theater J
reviewed by Hunter Styles
LOST IN YONKERS