Neil Simon’s play, “Lost in Yonkers” uses the playwright’s sharp humor to underscore a turbulent moment in the life of one American family. Douglas Okey has this review of a production at Corn Stock Theatre, for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.
Neil Simon today is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. We turn to him when we need something familiar and reassuring. He is perhaps the most critically adored of the more “popular” American playwrights. Simon even captured the Pulitzer Prize for “Lost in Yonkers,” currently on stage at Corn Stock Theatre under the capable direction of Amy Williams.
As in Simon’s earlier play “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Lost in Yonkers” takes the point of view of a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn in the run-up to World War II, and reflects the upheaval of that era: Two sons of a recently widowed father must be placed with their imposing grandmother, so that their father can travel for a business opportunity. The grandmother’s apartment over her candy shop bustles with the comings and goings of the boys’ aunts and uncles, and the boys find themselves pressed into service in the shop below.
A play like “Yonkers” makes much of the “ethnic” qualities of its characters and their colorful personalities. The dialogue crackles with snappy one-liners; many of the characters seem to be rehearsing their acts for the Borscht-Belt circuit. In this way the play functions as a kind of time-capsule, preserving the character of a nearly-vanished time and place.
To ask two young men born near the turn of the current century to find the empathy to bring to life characters so far removed from their own experience should bring despair to a director. But director Williams has struck gold with her principals: Logan Henderson as Jay and Gardner Brown as Arty, Jay’s younger brother. The bulk of the show’s weight lies on the shoulders of these young performers, and they bear it beautifully. Henderson and Brown spend loads of time onstage together—just the two of them—and they never let a moment drop or drag. Henderson as Jay strikes the right balance of adolescent awkwardness with the beginnings of responsible adult instinct, and his comic timing is impressive. There is more than a little early Woody Allen in his performance.
Brown as Arty is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the evening. Even younger than the 12-year-old he portrays, Brown displays none of the distractedness one often sees in a performer his age. He is absolutely in each moment, playing expertly off his fellow cast members, and creating Arty as whip-smart and deviously disingenuous. Some of his best moments come with Helen Engelbrecht as Grandma Kurnitz. Her stern, old-world granny who at first resists taking in her grandsons provides a worthy antagonist. Engelbrecht does a good job finding the soft heart at the center of this steely and formidable woman without compromising the integrity of the character’s essential stiffness.
Also outstanding is Shannon Orrill as the boys’ Aunt Bella, a woman of limited intellect and limitless heart. Like her siblings a victim of her mother’s unyielding personality, Bella nonetheless has found an outlet for her dreams and desires. She is more than she at first appears, and Orrill capably develops Bella’s nuances and never allows the character to recede into stereotype. Her mobbed-up brother Louie, played by the excellent and very funny Paul Arbisi, likewise finds the subtleties in a portrayal that could easily be one-dimensional. He also finds a natural rapport with the two young actors.
Along with the highly competent comedy is a strong undercurrent of drama, as the various characters try to make peace with their pasts, with each other, and with themselves. As in the best of tragicomedies, there are no fastidiously tidy endings or happily-ever-afters. But the characters find a way to soldier on, and everyone experiences growth. There’s the real comfort in Neil Simon’s world.
Performances of “Lost in Yonkers” continue through Saturday at Corn Stock Theatre, in upper Bradley Park in Peoria. Tickets, and more information, are available at www.cornstocktheatre.com.