‘Lost in Yonkers’ finds success at new White Theatre
By Patricia Morris Buckley
SDUN Theatre Critic
For its inaugural production in the new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (which replaces the old Cassius Carter Stage), the Old Globe chose a play that will fit most tastes. “Lost in Yonkers” is a dark drama laced with comedy. It’s also the play that won playwright Neil Simon the Pulitzer Prize.
Unlike many of Simon’s works, “Lost in Yonkers” is not autobiographical. It centers around a Jewish German family during WWII. Two teenage boys, Jay and Arty, are dropped off at their grandmother’s house because their father needs them to stay there while he goes on the road to sell scrap metal. He’s $9,000 in debt to a loan shark because he needed the money to pay for his recently deceased wife’s medical bills. Problem is, Jay and Arty don’t want to stay with their ultra-strict, tyrannical grandmother who never hugged her children because she feared it would make them “soft.”
There is one silver lining to the boys’ new living arrangement and that’s their Aunt Bella. Bella is a bit slow (what we call “mentally challenged” today), quite excitable and almost childlike. She gives the boys the warmth they miss getting from their mother and that their grandmother will never provide.
This episodic show has only a slight dramatic arc as the boys spend 10 months living in Yonkers. There’s a storyline about Bella asserting her independence by having a boyfriend, Uncle Louie, a smalltime henchman who is hiding out from other criminals, and the boys’ continuing struggle to live with their granite-like grandmother.
The actors have varying degrees of success with their roles. Oddly enough, it’s the two young actors as Jay and Arty who are the most impressive. That’s fortunate, as the brothers’ relationship is the backbone of the show.
Steven Kaplan plays the put upon Jay as a teenager almost ready to go out on his own but who values his family more than anything else. Kaplan swings between the comedy and drama easily and his New York accent is totally convincing. Austin Myers, a San Diego boy who also appeared in the Old Globe’s “First Wives Club,” plays Arty with a more youthful energy and a mischievous sense of humor. It’s a compliment to both boys to say that they really come across as brothers. As their father, Spencer Rowe has the same easy energy that makes them truly feel like a family.
The real star of the production is Judy Kaye as the grandmother. Kaye is a Broadway actress who has been nominated several times for a Tony Award. She plays this role completely somber and has a strong presence on the stage. You almost feel the temperature in the theater plummet when she’s in a scene.
The two other main characters in the cast don’t fare as well, which is sad because the Broadway actors in the parts won Tony Awards. Jennifer Regan is sweet as Bella and has many nice mannerisms that add to the character, but somehow she just barely misses the mark on making the character totally believable. On the other hand, Jeffrey M. Bender tries too hard playing Louie, even overplaying a few moments.
Director Scott Schwartz provides a sure hand with the production, making the action flow easily and at a clipped paced. Ralph Funicello’s set seems designed to show off the new theater’s features, which isn’t a bad thing. The living room set is flexible, the stage exits double as hallways very nicely and the stairway down to the ice cream parlor is just what the play asks for. But there’s a gap around the entire in-the-round set, showing how deep the stage goes down that’s a bit distracting, even though it does play up the fact that this family and all their dysfunction is an island unto itself. Another visually interesting touch is the windows that come down on four sides of the stage when the actors aren’t onstage.
There’s a good reason that “Lost in Yonkers” won the Pulitzer. It’s a compelling, truthful drama about family and how they define each other, but there are also many light-hearted, funny moments. This production may not be an A-plus, but it’s definitely an A. And that’s a great way to christen a new theater.u
“Lost in Yonkers”
When: Through Feb. 28
Where: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, at the Old Globe
Info: (619) 234-5623