Lost in Yonkers
Lost in Yonkers
Light and Sound
I am very happy to report that the folks at TACT have mastered the art of speaking Neil Simon. This no small achievement, even for a company that has proved itself adept at the diverse works of Alan Ayckbourn, Sidney Howard, and T. S. Eliot; as several recent revivals of Simon's plays have shown, they are much harder than they look. In truth, his dramatic voice - based in the rat-a-tat dialogue of '40s Hollywood films, shaped by years spent writing TV sketch comedy, and crowned by his love of New Yorkers' wisecracking ways - is as stylized as anything by Wycherly or Congreve. It requires a distinct staccato rhythm, a certain hard-edged attack that not every actor can provide. As in sharpshooting, timing is everything; you have to know exactly when to pull the trigger. Katie Finneran had it in Promises, Promises. The entire company of the all-too-brief revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs had it, too. And, guided by the director Jenn Thompson, the company of Lost in Yonkers has it, in spades. And they can make his words sound like simple human conversation, not the products of some zinger machine.
Not that Lost in Yonkers is completely - or even primarily - a night of laughs. One of Simon's most ambitious plays, it's a tale of childhood interrupted as well as a portrait of a family where love is in desperately short supply.
At the center of all this intrigue are Jay and Arty. It's a smart move on Simon's part, allowing us to see the action through their semi-innocent eyes, but it requires a couple of young actors who can hold their own on stage. Fortunately, Thompson got lucky with both Matthew Gumley as Jay, who, at a distressingly early age, finds himself trying to keep the peace in this fractious household, and Russell Posner as Arty, who, having nothing to lose, feels free to say whatever is on his mind.
Then again, everyone in the cast has found the knack of playing each scene for emotional truth while honoring Simon's singular style. Even if she isn't quite as fearsome as Irene Worth, who created the role, Cynthia Harris is a chilling, formidable presence as Grandma Kurnitz. Sitting in her favorite chair, her posture impossibly erect, wielding her cane like a scepter of power, she is one old lady you do not want to cross. From this position she delivers her scalding truths. "You're not in your mother's house no more," she tells the ailing Arty. "Stay a child, Bella, and be glad that's what God made you," she says, offering the closest thing to comfort in her emotional repertory.
Bella is the trickiest character in the script - it's never totally clear if she is developmentally disabled, emotionally stunted, or some combination of the two - but here she is brought to rambunctious life by Finnerty Stevens. Running around like an overgrown kid, talking louder than everyone in the room, and instantly switching moods, turning joyful or demanding or furious, she is a thoroughly believable case of arrested adolescence. She pulls off the character's Gracie Allen-like remarks but she is also surprisingly scrappy, indicting Grandma Kurnitz for her coldness and shocking her with accounts of surreptitious sexual activities.
The rest of the cast is equally adept. As Eddie, Dominic Comperatore manages to make his big scene - one of the biggest dollops of exposition ever ladled out by a playwright in one serving - seem perfectly natural. Alec Beard is less menacing than Kevin Spacey, who creating the role of Louie, but there's plenty of snap in his remarks, especially when sizing up Grandma Kurnitz. ("Whatever I've accomplished in this life, just remember - you're my partner," he says, perfectly aware of how much his words burn.) Stephanie Cozart is saddled with a cameo role that is something of a gimmick, but she creates a nicely etched characterization nonetheless.
John McDermott's set design is filled with the heavy Victorian furniture that Grandma Kurnitz would prefer, and it makes for a suitably oppressive atmosphere. For reasons I don't really understand, a pair of scenic panels, joined to make a V formation and featuring images of cloudy skies, is placed above the action; in any case, they are nicely lit, along with everything else, by Martin E. Vreeland. David Toser's costumes are filled with interesting and amusing details and Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design is filled with evocative snatches of period music and radio broadcasts.
More than once in the last few years, I've wondered if Simon, despite his phenomenal success, wasn't doomed to become another one of the American theatre's back numbers, a curiosity of another era. Happily, this production suggests there's still a lot of life left in his plays. Having done so well with one of his late-era works, I'd be curious to see TACT try one of the early hit comedies - say Plaza Suite, or even The Prisoner of Second Avenue. They've certainly got the Neil Simon knack.