In his autobiography “The Play Goes on”, Neil Simon talked about creating the role of Bella. “The boys (Arty and Jay) needed a confidant, someone who would be a buffer between them and their grandmother. I invented Aunt Bella. About thirty-six or thirty-seven, and still living with her mother, working in the candy store from the early morning till closing time; even giving the back rubs and leg rubs to ease her pain. There would have to be something wrong with Bella as a sweet, shy, and nervous woman, but loving her two nephews. It wasn’t enough. With a mother whose only concern is that her children survive, without love, without warmth, without affection, they would have to become a dysfunctional family.
In the next draft, Bella changed. She was almost retarded, but not in a clinical way. Her growth as a human being was stunted. She became a fifteen-year-old child in the body if a thirty-eight-year-old woman, with all the desires and needs of a mature woman, but with the inability to understand these desires. With Arty and Jay moving in, we see Bella happier than she’s ever been before, even though Jay, fourteen, and Arty, about twelve, seem more grown up than she is.”
Who better than to play the difficult role of Bella than three-time Helen Hayes Award winner Holly Twyford? Holly wraps her arms around Theater J audiences, cuddles them, and never lets go. You laugh and cry, and cheer as she becomes more confident and finally takes on the “matriarch from hell”. It would be easy to overact in this role, but Holly never does, and that’s why critics and audiences are raving about her heart-warming, assertive, and zany performance.
Joel: What is Lost In Yonkers about from Bella’s point of view?
Holly: Bella’s attitude is that to which we should all aspire … she wants to be happy. She’s not sure how to get there, but she knows that something has to change. When the boys arrive, I think she sees a chance, when she forces her mother to take them in, it’s not just for them and for Eddie, it’s because Bella knows that some sort of change can maybe begin with their presence.
Joel: How do you relate to Bella?
Holly: A professor in school used to say “find the love in the scene”, and he didn’t just mean in the scene or the play but in the character … one always needs to fall in love with the character. I’m sure there’s a bit of Holly in all my characters, hopefully more on the inside, and not the outside.
Joel: How did you prepare for the role?
Holly: I learned the lines before we started rehearsal. I tried to learn the accent, and read up on the period, and I watched a bunch of movies that Bella would have seen. I think movies are an incredibly important part of her life.
Joel: Now that you have a child, how has that influenced your performance as Bella , and in the way you interact with the two young actors who play your nephews –Kyle Schliefer and Max Talisman?
Holly: Max and Kyle are such professionals, I don’t think any of us think of them as boys. We all treat each other with respect and it’s great to be onstage with them … and when we veteran actors have advice or ideas for them (I used to be on that end when I was a young actor), they are nothing but welcoming. I don’t know if having a child has influenced my performance, except in the giant sense of seeing with absolute clarity what one’s priorities are.
Joel: What is the best advice Jerry Whiddon gave you about playing the role of Bella?
Holly: Jerry is an actor’s director, and one of the things that that means is being able to gently guide an actor in the right direction, while letting him or her discover the right and wrong paths for him or herself. So it’s difficult to pinpoint exact directions, but I can look back and say, “Wow, he tricked me into making that beautiful , perfect choice about that moment … ”
Joel: You have worked with Tana Hicken before, most recently in The Road To Mecca last season at Studio Theatre. Is working with Tana here similar or different?
Holly: It’s always wonderful, always inspiring, always a master class, and always delightful onstage and off.
Joel: When you perform the powerful confrontational scene with Tana, what experiences in your life did you draw upon to play this scene?
Holly: Nothing in particular from my life. Everybody has watershed moments when they know things will not and cannot ever be the same.
Joel: You are known for your performances in contemporary plays, how did you take to Neil Simon’s style of comedy?
Holly: If it’s funny it’s funny, it doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare, Neil Labute, or Neil Simon.
Joel: What is your approach to acting?
Holly: Tell the truth, and tell the story.
Joel: What things do you think about when you are considering a part?
Holly: Whether or not I have to do a 19-question written interview. No, seriously. There are so many factors: the role, the play, the theater, the director, the time commitment, the salary, the schedule, what family gatherings I’ll miss, how much time between the previous and future projects, if there’s another offer is it better? what, artistically, is the best thing for me? It’s not always all of those things, and sometimes it’s only one of them, but I try to stay true to myself and do what’s best for my family.
Joel: When was the first time you were bitten by the theatre bug, and what your first performance on the stage?
Holly: I think grade school – 4th grade to be exact. I played a scientist in a play about the history of the wheel, or something.
Joel: What other roles would you like to play?
Holly: Some of Shakespeare’s gentlemen spring to mind, but I have to think some more on that.
Joel: You have been performing in the Washington theatre community for a while. Why do you enjoy working here?
Holly: We love living here, our families are here, and the community is unequaled …
Joel: What advice would you give young students, who are considering a career in theatre?
Holly: Let it choose you. If this isn’t something you need to do, don’t do it.
Joel: What’s next for you?
Holly: Orestes, a new adaptation by Anne Washburn at the Folger, directed by Aaron Posner.
Joel: What do you want the audience to take with them when they leave the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theatre, after seeing Lost In Yonkers?
Holly: I hope they feel that they’ve taken an interesting and fulfilling journey with us.
How did Neil Simon create the two brothers Arty and Jay in Lost in Yonkers? In the opening scene where we are introduced to Grandmother, it was originally planned that there would be just one son – Jay. “This leaves the young boy, Jay, sitting by himself in the living room, not even knowing his life is being discussed a few feet away from him. But how do we know what his thoughts are? What fears he has? No problem. I give Jay a younger brother, Arty. Now they can discuss at length how much they fear the grandmother and hope that Pop will come out soon, so they can all leave. We’ve not only established the brothers and their plight, we know a great deal about Grandma Kurnitz long before she makes an appearance.”
Who better than to play Arty and Jay than two friends who have appeared on the stage together in the past – Max Talisman and Kyle Schliefer? I’m a big fan of Max and Kyle. I saw them perform together at Musical Theater Center, and have followed their careers closely, because these are two talented young actors who have a bright future ahead of them.
Many theatre goers will recognize Max from his astounding vocal performance as Noah Gellman in Studio Theatre’s Helen Hayes Award winning production of Caroline, or Change. This is the first time he’s appeared in a non-singing role. Audiences will remember Kyle as Eric in Round House Theatre’s production of Lord of the Flies, and Rooster in Classika Theatre’s production of The Bremen Musicians.
Joel: What is Lost In Yonkers about from the point of view of Arty and Jay?
Max: Lost in Yonkers from the point of view of Arty is a tale of brotherhood. Arty and his brother Jay are best friends. The play is about how they stick together through tough family trials. The brothers stick it out through the crazy – but loving – Aunt Bella and the scary and intimidating Grandmother. For me, Arty’s story is also Jay’s story, because they stick together, and their friendship and love for each other grow deeper.
Kyle: From Jay’s perspective, Lost In Yonkers is in one sense his transition from boyhood into manhood. At the beginning of the play, Jay is left in a situation completely out of his control. He feels the solution is finding Grandma’s money, and bringing his father back home. What he ends up learning, and what actually starts his transition into manhood, is the importance of family. He gets many lessons from his encounters with Aunt Bella, Louie, Gert, and even Grandma. He ends up loving people and accepting them for who they are. At end of the show, he even tells Grandma he has learned a lot from her. “some good, and some bad,” but he got the lessons.
Joel: How do you relate to Arty and Jay?
Max: I consider myself a pretty funny guy. I also come up with quick and witty one-liners, so that was not hard to relate to. It was not hard to relate to a thirteen year old, because I recently experienced it. The brother relationship was not hard to relate to because I have two best friends – my brother, and my best friend Hunter. I based my performance on those relationships.
Kyle: Being the middle child in my family, I have had the experience of being older brother and younger brother. Since Jay is the eldest, I really tried to draw from my experiences with my younger sister Colette. Jay and I both feel a need to take care of our younger siblings. I can also relate with Jay’s wanting to please people. I try my hardest not to be confrontational unless it gets to a desperate point, just as Jay does with Uncle Louie. Jay has meant a lot to me to play- because I have felt so comfortable in his shoes. He is a character I relate extremely easily to, and I have nothing but pure joy playing him on stage every night.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a friend or relative?
Max: I based Arty on many different people. My biggest inspirations came from my family’s history, and my best friend and his brother. Arty is slightly based on Hunter’s brother Noah. Noah is very quick on his feet, and can stand up to Hunter with ease and wit. Noah reminds me of myself. His age right now is closer to Arty’s age, so he reminds me of Arty.
Kyle: My Grandfather had a very similar experience that Jay has as a child. He grew up in Brooklyn, and his mother died when he was young. He and his brother were sent to live with their Aunt Lea when he was very young, while his Dad went off to work. My Grandfather is very much the Jay of our family. He has the best heart of anyone I know, and I knew he would be a perfect person to draw from, in playing Jay.
Joel: What was your audition like? What did you perform?
Max: We did the first scene from the show. I did not read with Kyle until the second callback. My audition was lots of fun. It was great to meet Jerry (Whiddon, the director) there.
Jay: I performed a monologue from Master Harold and the Boys.
Joel: When did you get the phone call where you were offered the role of Arty?
Max: It was the opening night of my school musical – The Pirates of Penzance. I was with my friends in the downstairs choral room, and I was playing the piano, while my friends were on Facebook. My phone was ringing off the hook. I saw that it was my mother. I ran outside to get better reception. My mom told me that I got the part. I was ecstatic! I ran inside to tell my friends. And I jumped up and down like I had just won The U.S. Open – for about five minutes.
Jay: I was with my mom in my kitchen when I was offered Jay. I was overjoyed! Getting a leading role in an Equity show has been a dream of mine for a while. The fact that Theater J made that dream a reality- was something that really meant so much to me.
Joel: Max, you have a lot of “one-liners” in the show? Name some of your favorites.
Max: Oh wow! I love all of them. My favorite scene is when I talk back to Grandma, and then I do a double take and realize what I have just said. I also love when my character suggests cutting off Grandma’s braids, and selling it to the army for barbed wire.
Joel: Kyle, Jay is the emotional son in the show. Are you an emotional person?
Kyle: I am emotional when it comes to something I love. I am extremely passionate about the work I am doing in this show ,and in performing in general, because I love what I am doing .If I ever have any pent up emotion – I try to save it for the stage, because that is the best release possible, and my way of expressing my self.
Joel: Kyle, how would you describe the relationship between Jay and his father (Eddie) who is played by Kevin Bergen, and Arty?
Kyle: Jay loves his father with all his heart, especially because his mother is dead. Jay’s father is the one person he feels he can depend on. When his father leaves to work in the south, Jay only wants to emulate him, and he feels responsible for Arty’s well being.
When it comes to Arty, Jay loves his little brother. He wants nothing but the best for him. The two of them can butt heads at times, but Jay’s main focus throughout the show is finding a better situation for him AND ARTY, Arty is his partner in crime. There is a theme throughout the show of family sticking together, and Jay and Arty are a prime example of this.
Joel: Kyle, now that we know you are emotional and passionate, what is your most difficult scene to play in the show?
Kyle: The scene where I explode at Uncle Louie. It is another step into Jay becoming a man. He somewhat has an out-of-body experience. He steps out of his comfort zone and gets the courage to stand up to Louie, because he is driven to a point where he can’t ignore his own feelings. After all of Jay’s emotional explosion – he then pulls back and gets “back in his body”. That is what I find so wonderful about Jay. He always finds a way back to himself.
Joel: Max, what is your favorite scene in the show, and what is the most difficult scene for you to perform, or watch?
Max: My favorite scene is the one where Bella tells us her sacred secret. It’s a scene filled with fun lines for me. But as I said earlier, I also adore the scene where I finally talk back to Grandma. This is also the most difficult scene for me, because it is a hard balance between not knowing the impact of what your saying, and being a smart-ass.
Joel: Max, what line in the show is so hard to keep a straight face saying it?
Max: Well, I think it is really hard to keep a straight face when I call Louis a henchman, and he backs me up until I fall onto the bed. It’s a fun part of the show. That whole scene is really hard for me to keep a straight face, while I am performing it.
Joel: What is the best advice director Jerry Whiddon gave you?
Max: “Do not be a smart-ass. Keep the innocence and helplessness”. Jerry was so helpful in developing Arty. It was an awesome honor to work with him.
Jay: Never go for any laugh. Jerry explained to me at my first audition what makes Jay so likeable and at times funny. That is how seriously he takes himself. He is very serious and if he has something to say he says it for a reason. One of the most helpful tips Jerry gave me was in the first scene. He told me Jay is deathly afraid of Grandma and his relatives, and knows being at her house can only lead to no good. He helped me find my main objective in that scene, which is to warn Arty. Just from that work with him, it helped me really develop Jay throughout the show.
Joel: What is it like to work with Holly Twyford, Tana Hicken , Lisa Bruneau , and Marcus Kyd? What have you learned from watching them?
Max: I always say that performing with them is like a master class in acting every night. They have taught me how to relate to the other characters onstage, and to develop my character, so that he matches the rest of the family. I am stunned to work with such talent, who lift up the show to a level – that I jump to every night. Again, it’s really is a master class in acting, and I am honored to be a part of it.
Kyle: It is the best acting lesson I have ever received. Watching them and playing off of them – you learn so much. They have all been in the industry for a long time, and are all pros at their craft. I feel so fortunate to be working with each and every one of them. When I did Arcadia with Holly, I did not get to work with her as much as I would have liked. Watching her in that show, I picked up so many tips. Being able to work with her as closely as I do in this show, has been a dream come true.
Joel: You have worked with each other many times before. Tell us about working together then and now. Which roles and shows are your favorites?
Max: I performed with Kyle in Bye Bye Birdie. He played Conrad, and I played Randolph. We didn’t really hang out then, but he was always very nice and kind to a little Max. Kyle and I have done many shows together. We were in the same performing troupe for a year – called “Upbeat Unlimited” – which is my favorite show that we have done together. The years at Musical Theater Center will always keep a place in my heart.
Kyle: I agree with Max. Working with him in Bye Bye Birdie was my favorite experience before this one. Knowing him before was helpful for our stage relationship. I feel I really got to know Max well through this experience. I drove him home after rehearsals, and still do after some shows here. The bonding from those car rides also helped to form the relationship you see on the stage in this show with Jay and Arty.
Max: I believe it makes the performance more real and endearing. It is awesome to work with someone who you are so close with. We really have become brothers.
Joel: When was the first time you were bitten by the “theatre bug”, and what was your first performance on the stage?
Max: The “bug” bit me when I listened to Cats. I was hooked. My first performance on the stage was when I was eight, and I did Les Miserables at Musical Theater Center.
Kyle: My first performance on stage was as John in Peter Pan at my pre-school. I really got “bitten by the bug” when I performed in Once Upon A Mattress when I was 8 years old. When I was in 5th grade, I played Tevye in Fiddler on The Roof (and it was the full version).Being in that production – and all the hard work that went along with it – really built my confidence and cemented my need to do this for the rest of my life.
Joel: Kyle, you have appeared at Olney Theatre Center in Fiddler on the Roof and Peter Pan, – and as you mentioned – Arcadia at Folger Theatre, The Member of The Wedding at Ford’s, Lord of the FliesMiss Nelson is Missing at Imagination Stage, The Merry Widow at The Washington Savoyards, and The Bremen Musicians at Classika Theatre. What were your favorite roles, and which experience was your favorite? at Round House Theatre,
Kyle: My favorite roles have been Eric in Lord of the Flies. It was one of my first times I really got to flex my acting muscles on an Equity stage. Another experience I will never forget is when I went on as Peter Pan in Peter Pan at Olney. That performance was something I could have only dreamed of doing. Being the understudy and actually getting to perform it was incredible. When I originated the role of Rooster in The Bremen Musicians, it was my first time originating a role. It was an experience that I had never had before, and I loved that creative process. Lord of the Flies has been favorite experience, until playing Jay. That production of Lord of the Flies was so unique, was very well done. Adding modern music, dance and all of director Blake Robison’s artistic choices made the production truly ingenious.
Joel: Kyle, you’ve also worked on TV. Tell us about that.
Kyle: I have been seen on the Discovery Channel series Most Evil in two episodes, and I have also appeared in the HBO mini series John Adams. I have also appeared in some independent films and commercials. I love doing film work. It is a direction I would really love for my career to take, as well as performing in the theatre. It is very different from doing theatre, because things are not always done in sequence, and emotions don’t always get the time to build up, as they do in the theatre. And it is not live. Retakes are allowed. I enjoy that side of the business, and hope to do more with it.
Joel: Kyle, you appeared in Songs For a New World Off-Broadway. Tell us about that experience. Did you get a chance to work with Jason Robert Brown?
Kyle: I was in the first professional Off -Broadway revival of the show in New York City, since its original opening. Being a part of that show was thrilling. It is one of my favorite shows. I have loved the music since I was 10 years old, and have been singing it for years. Every dream of mine was coming true. I was working in NYC doing a show I loved, and meeting fantastic people along the way. Jason Robert Brown came to the show, and gave a talk back afterwards. He is a hero of mine, and meeting him was something I will never forget. He was very supportive and impressed with our work. He was extremely candid with what motivated him to write the show, and I appreciated his honesty. I got to meet people like Brooks Ashmanskas and Billy Porter, who originated the roles of Man 1 and Man 2 in the first production. Many Broadway veterans also came to our show, and it was an experience like none other I have had.
Joel: Where did you receive your theatre and vocal training?
Max: I have been training vocally since I was seven with Rosie Dyer. I just came back from a voice lesson today. I love Rosie so much. My theatre training comes from Musical Theater Center and Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) in Columbia. I have also been training at Musical Theater Center since I was seven.
Kyle: I have taken voice and dance lessons since I was seven years old. I have been fortunate to do programs such as the Overtures program at Signature Theatre, and this summer I spent five weeks in New York City doing Cap 21’s pre-college summer program. In both programs, I was able to work with Broadway veterans and current Broadway stars, who inspired me, and gave me some of the best training I have received.
Joel: How has Musical Theater Center played a very important part in your young career?
Max: Musical Theater Center has taught me to be professional. I do not consider myself a dancer but because of MTC I am an “experienced mover”. Without MTC I would have never put on a tap shoe. In camp they used to Mock auditions and show us the bad and the good. That mock audition really did help me in the real world of auditioning.
Joel: Max, this is the first time you have appeared on the stage and you’re not utilizing your gorgeous singing voice, like you did in Caroline, Or Change at Studio Theatre? How does it feel?
Max: It is definitely hard. I have always been able to rely on my singing voice, and now I can’t do that for this show. I wanted to get this part to prove to myself that I could act. I’m proving it to myself every day. It’s hard work, but I am always up for the challenge. I love singing. It’s a spiritual release for me. I am still singing every day, because I can not live without it. I love learning to act with these incredible talented actors is such an honor, and I feel like I’m growing every day.
Joel: Max, you and Hunter Kieserman have written two musicals. Tell us about these two musicals and writing them with Hunter.
Max: Our two shows are titles Legacy: A Major Motion Musical, and Rose Hall. I cannot give away the whole plot. They are two original shows, and they are exciting and interesting. Hunter is my best friend, and there is nothing like working with someone who’s as close to you as a brother is. I love writing shows with Hunter. I learn so much about writing jokes and making characters human from him, and he learns new things about harmonizing and composing from me.
Joel: Max, you have a twin sister. Is she involved in the theatre? Has anyone else in your family appeared in the theatre?
Max: My twin sister does not do theatre. She is very musical, and loves singing along to music. My mother was a musical theater major at Northwestern. I learn so much from her. My mom has a beautiful singing voice. She has been a great mentor for me, as I venture into the theatre world.
Joel: What roles would you love to play, that you haven’t played before?
Max: Mostly adult male roles. I would kill to play Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and the title role in Jekyll & Hyde. Also, I would like to star in the shows that I have written with Hunter. He does also. I am not as in tune with plays, so I don’t have many dream roles in that area.
Kyle: I am probably the only performer who does not have a dream role. My hope is to just be a successful and versatile actor, and to continue to improve my craft.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Max: I will be in Strathmore’s Take Joy!, and will be performing in The Stephen Schwartz Project at Musical Theater Center.
Kyle: Right now I am in the process of auditioning for college, so that is what has been my focus. I am not sure where I am going yet, but I have been accepted to Marymount Manhattan, in NYC.
Joel: Why should young theatergoers come to see Lost in Yonkers?
Max: They should see it because two young actors their age are giving their all on stage every night. It’s a story about friendship and family, and isn’t that something that people our ages always need to learn some more about?
Kyle: I want people to leave with a sense of joy. This show is more a “dramedy” than anything else, but it does end on a happy note. As serious as Jay is, he brings me immense joy, so I can only hope that I transfer that joy to the audience.