TACT'S REVIVAL HITS THE SPOT
BY HENRY EDWARDS
Even though critics and audiences adored Neil Simon's “Lost in Yonkers,” the comedy-drama, a recipient of both the 1991 Pulitzer Prize and an Outstanding Play Tony award, surprisingly has not been seen again in New York—until now.
And being seen again it is—in a superlative production by The Actor’s Company Theatre (TACT) at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre.
"Yonkers" has always been a funny, sad, poignant play, and this time around, thanks to Jenn Thompson's expertly calibrated direction and the performances of a faultless cast, it also feels convincingly real.
Set in 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II, Simon's effort focuses on the difficulties faced by a pair of young teenage brothers, 15-and-a-half-year-old Jay (Matthew Gumley) and 13-and-a-half-year-old Arty (Russell Posner), whose desperate father Eddie (Dominic Comperatore), a traveling salesman, is forced to head South in order to earn the $9,000 he borrowed from a loanshark to pay his deceased wife’s hospital bill.
The departure forces his sons to spend a year living in the apartment of their monstrously intimidating grandmother, an exceedingly bitter German-American widow known only as Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris), and their sweet, mentally slow, highly excitable 35-year-old aunt, Bella (Finnerty Steeves).
Kept under close watch by her mother, Bella incurs the elderly woman's wrath and nearly rips the family apart when she struggles to break free from the limitations of her disabilities and the tyrannical rule of her mother.
In the Neil Simon canon, “Yonkers” followed close on the heels of the playwright's semi-autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”; “Biloxi Blues”; “Broadway Bound”), so named because the plays traced the story of Eugene Jerome from his adolescence to the beginning of his career as an aspiring comedy writer.
As has usually been the case with Simon, there were some critics who carped about the sit-com quality of some of the comedy writing in the trilogy as well as what they viewed as excessive sentimentality.
For the most part, the bittersweet “Yonkers” transcended those accusations. Taking it much further, TACT’s revival places the focus on the emotional truths residing at the heart of Simon's play.
Those truths resonate in the author's portrayals of Grandma Kurnitz and daughter Bella, conceivably the most emotionally charged odd couple he has ever written.
An exponent of a terrifying brand of tough love, ice-cold Grandma Kurnitz has mostly succeeded in scaring and damaging each of her four adult children.
What drives her? one wonders. The answer to that question comes late in the play. After losing two of her children, rather than experience the emotional turbulence that would inevitably accompany another domestic crisis, Grandma Kurnitz shut down, successfully closing off family members from anything resembling nurturing and feeling. Grandma also utilized harshness as her sole parenting tool, utilizing it to toughen up her offspring and transform them into survivors.
Cynthia Harris is a marvel as this stone faced, cane wielding dragon, and Finnerty Steeves is every bit her match as easily confused, naïve, overly excitable daughter Bella. The actress is especially heartbreaking and wrenching during a climatic showdown scene with her mother in which she cries out and pleads for the physical and emotional intimacy she has been denied throughout her life.
It's a devastating scene. Yet the actresses brilliantly keep their cool, and rather than overplaying it and arbitrarily reaching for the jugular, they maintain the reality of the encounter. Thus the audience experiences the emotional rawness of the moment rather than having it forced down its collective throat.
As impressive as Harris and Steeves are, Matthew Gumley and Russell Posner (in a terrific stage debut) are equally as truthful as the Kurnitz brothers. There is not a hint of "child actor" about either of the young performers whose abundant skill and intelligence (and quite impressive effortlessness) allows them to infuse Simon's sparkly patter with a dose of much needed reality—and still be funny at the same time.
Dominic Comperatore, perfect as a beleagured father, Alec Beard as Uncle Louie, a macho, tough talking, petty gangster and Stephanie Cozart as Aunt Gert, who cannot talk without gasping (you've got to see it to believe it) round out a perfect cast.
Ultimately, the themes of abandonment and the price of survival pervade this coming-of-age tale in which every deeply wounded member of a damaged family is lost in Yonkers, yet continuing to do his or her (deeply human and flawed) best to survive. This revival perfectly captures their efforts, and those efforts are well worth seeing.
TACT has a full fledged hit on its hands.
"Lost in Yonkers” is scheduled to continue through April 14. In response to the demand for tickets, TACT has scheduled an additional pair of matinees (April 4 & 11 at 2pm).