In the bucolic Eastport Plaza, the Compass Rose Studio Theater is nestled comfortably between Ahh Coffee (whose products you are welcome to bring into the theater) and Eastport Liquors (not so sure there), doing an entirely serviceable production of the entirely serviceable Neil Simon play, Lost in Yonkers. All hail Compass Rose, which is bringing a third professional theater into the burgeoning Annapolis art scene. Until ten years ago there were none.
As Compass Rose is not just a professional theater but an acting academy as well, Lost in Yonkers is an excellent selection, since it gives two important roles to young actors: that of 15-year-old Jay (Eli Pendry) and 13-year-old Arty (Will Fritz) Kurnitz, who are being deposited at the apartment of their incredibly mean grandma (Lucinda Merry-Browne) because their dad (Anthony Bosco) must leave town to work off his debt to the loan shark who financed his wife’s unsuccessful fight against cancer. Grandma – who in a nice ironic touch runs a sweets shop in the first floor of her home – is a fierce immigrant from Germany who hates that she has been chased from her home, disdains her adopted country, and in general has, um, anger management issues. She lives with her daughter Bella (Brianna Letourneau), whose ladder doesn’t reach all the way to the top, and periodically her other children, Louie (Daniel Vito Siefring), who is either a mobster or a business consultant, depending on who you ask, and Gert (Sarah Strasser), who has an unpleasant breathing disorder, come to visit her. The boys’ central dilemma is how to get out from under the thumb of the domineering old bat. That is everyone else’s central dilemma as well.
As the domineering old bat, Merry-Browne gives a surprisingly layered, thoughtful performance. Simon gives the character the tools to be more than a simple antagonist, and Merry-Browne and director Brandon McCoy take advantage of them. Her Grandma is mean enough to be cheerfully thrown from a train, but you can also see in Merry-Browne’s portrayal the hint of softer emotions buried underneath the crust.
Siefring is as good as I have yet seen him as the bluff, belligerent Uncle Louie, a man whose braggadocio and outsized gestures mask the awful trouble he is in. Siefring uses his size and booming voice to great advantage, and when he softens to give the boys good advice in their moment of need it is easy to see why they struggle not to be in awe of him.
The other performances are not as vivid, or as successful. The two young actors obviously understand the characters they are portraying and do so skillfully, and Fritz exhibits a good sense of comic timing. But both of them will need to learn to articulate better if they are to succeed in this competitive and unforgiving profession. Good articulation does more than make the text clear to the audience; it is also an aid to emotional expression. Words which express emotional content do so with more impact when they are bitten off cleanly.
Bella is an extraordinarily difficult role, in that Simon never fixes her with a precise identity. As the story begins, Bella appears to be mildly mentally retarded. (“Where is your mother?” she asks the boys brightly; after a few awful seconds Jay explains that she’s dead. “I mean where is she buried?” Bella asks guilelessly.) But Simon thrusts on her responsibility for making Grandma confront herself, and thereafter gives her the upper hand in the household. Letourneau is too well put together in the play’s opening minutes to be as damaged as Jay and Arty believe her to be, and as the text would have us believe her to be as well. She seems more Gracie Allenish than anything else, and it makes her journey to the woman she is in the final scene a little less illuminating.
Speaking of the final scene, it is full of tabletop psychoanalysis, ostensibly done by the characters but in fact done by Simon as a way of tying up the various conflicts. Simon’s penchant for manipulating his characters into an ending which is comfortable for his audience – manifest in all but his best work, like The Odd Couple – is the reason that he is a hopelessly middlebrow playwright, notwithstanding his enormously skillful dialogue and deep insights. Compass Rose plays the lines straight, with utmost seriousness and respect, and so probably derives as much juice out of them as anyone could expect.
The set is modest, as befits a new company staging a play set in an old house, but the effects are lovingly and accurately rendered, for which credit Jo Ann Gidos and Sophie George. I loved Meaghan O’Bierne’s costumes, and in particular Uncle Louie’s suit, which deserved a stage credit in and of itself. Withal, this is a satisfactory debut of a company with much to promise for the future.
Lost in Yonkers
By Neil Simon
Directed by Brandon McCoy
Produced by Compass Rose Studio Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes with one intermission