chemistry, telling psychology in Lost in Yonkers
The Colorado Springs Independent,
February 14, 2002
As Neil Simon himself admits, his greatest
challenge as a playwright stems directly from his unpretentious
rapport with mass audiences: "I have to fight off those detractors
who attack me for committing the heinous crime of being 'popular.'"
Simon is no Ibsen, but then again, he'd probably rather pass a
gallstone. He wants to do what he is good at: making people laugh.
Lost in Yonkers
, directed by David Hastings (who soon leaves
Colorado Springs for Australia), encourages not only belly laughs,
but also a mood of thoughtful gravity.
Like much of the Jewish humorous tradition,
is "in spite of" funny -- its humor serves as a release from
the trauma of experience. In this case, we have the looming Hitler,
World War II on news radio, and not least, Old World Grandma Kunitz
(well-acted by Leah Chandler Mills), whose stern demands,
ever-present whacking cane, and caustic mustard soup combine to
teach her clan about the world's harsh truth. "It's not important
that you hate me," she says. "It's important that you live." It is a
testament to Mills' performance that even as we see the destructive
results of Grandma's tyranny, we are never given the luxury to
completely discount her hardened ethic.
Jay (Jesse Bonnell) and Arty (Gabriel
Gianes) are brothers who must temporarily grapple with Grandma's
lessons while their timid, loving father Eddie (Phil Ginsburg) heads
down South to make money selling scrap iron. Further complications
and humor arise from the plans of the slow but sweet Aunt Bella (Amy
Brooks) and the visitation of the street-smart Uncle Louie (Mark
Much of the credit for this production's
success lies in the hands of an excellent and well-directed cast.
Importantly, Bonnell and Gianes display considerable chemistry
together, hitting the rhythmic notes of Simon's physical and verbal
gags. The young Gianes' body language -- kneeling in front of the
fan to keep cool, laying flat on his back and messing up his suit --
works wonderfully. He also has a knack for the endearing
understatement; reflecting on Grandma, he deadpans, "She and I have
very short conversations."
Bonnell, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect as the
humane, frustrated Jay -- you can tell when he's thinking, because
he holds his elbow in his hand and gnaws on his thumbnail. If Arty
is saved from terminal cuteness by a rascally streak, Jay is saved
by his rage at the family's circumstance. You won't find a line like
"I hate everyone in the whole world" in Family Circus.
The best performance, though, comes from
Hennessy as the hilariously smarmy Uncle Louie. His slinky pace,
tough-guy chatter and explosive temper capture a character who
reminds the boys of a "James Cagney movie in our own house."
Ostensibly the toughest among them, this criminal is sadly the most
pliant recipient of Grandma's teachings. Hennessy steals nearly
every scene he's in, and his confrontation with the younger boys is
the most fully realized conflict in the play.
Other second-half clashes suffer from
schmaltz, partly as a result of Simon's tendency to overwrite his
characters' speeches -- particularly the central Bella. She can't
count scoops of ice cream, but she provides insightful psychological
analysis. The brief appearance of breathing-impaired sister Gerty
(played by the skillful Jane Fromme) also doesn't connect: too
implausible, too grotesque.
Nevertheless, despite some shortcomings,
is a tremendously entertaining evocation of a bygone time.
Its caring gaze into the past is epitomized by Bella's comment about
her dead father. "Did you know that you can love someone who died
before you were born?"
-- Paul Wilson