Neil Simon is the only living playwright with a theatre named after him, and for good reason. Styled a great comic writer, Simon’s straight plays almost never follow standard, comic structure. Even though his works reflect standard moral reference, his use of structure is anything but standard. He plays in the teeth and up the wazoo of the structure he’s chosen. We are grateful for it. Without this, we would not have his rib-busting tragedies, or, in this case, his severely funny, dangerous and touching melodramas.
LOST IN YONKERS is the story of teenage brothers Jay and Arty Kurnitz, presented to us fully realized and with solid craft by Joe Vaccaro and Bryce Powell respectively. Their interplay was spot-on. They are teenagers in a world whose possibilities include loveless mothers, violent deaths, orphaning and insanity.
And they are very funny. Not for a moment did I believe that they were anything other than teenage boys because, well, they are. But not for a moment did I think them anything but teenage boys in 1943 in the pressure pot of the play’s world. I thank them both for fine performances.
Grandma Kurnitz is gifted us in stolid, Germanic precision by Celeste Bonfanti, an actress showing herself to be most versatile and solid on the Bridge Players’ stage. Ms. Bonfanti’s Grandma has a codger’s cold heart. She is, at times, shockingly cruel to her children. But as the play unfolds, Ms. Bonfanti reveals the heart beneath the crust to be just as Simon wrote it to be. . .cold steel.
We hear the pain behind the tempering of the mettle of her heart, but the tale leads to no catharsis for her or us. But, while we don’t see it displayed openly, Ms. Bonfanti allows us the smallest glimpse of the mother’s heart beating beneath the steel, the perfect dash of humanity allowing the character to settle in our souls.
There are four others in the dysfunctional Kurnitz family album—the sibling offspring of Grandma and Grandpa Kurnitz. This first generation of American immigrant children has been so spiritually and emotionally scarred by their mother’s harsh experiences and lethal terrors that they are four flowers of injury, each a unique blossom.
Aunt Gert, the sister who escaped the apartment, refuses to take it in. Literally. She can’t breathe deeply enough to finish a sentence. Midway through she runs out of air and has to finish the thought while drawing breath in through the words. It is painfully hilarious. Nervously, lovingly and breathlessly played by Gabrielle Affleck, Gert embodies the good heart helpless to influence a thing.
Uncle Louie is a thug. He wears an expensive suit, flashes a big bank roll and insouciantly carries a gun in a shoulder holster. Damian Muziani is such a perfect Louie that I was shocked after the show to hear him speak in eloquent, mid-Atlantic standard. He had me thugged and Yonkered all the way. A broadcaster and business-owner, Mr. Muziani has been less able to commit to live performances than he’d like. I would encourage him to return speedily and often.
A most remarkable piece of this presentation is the truth of the relationships drawn between the boys and the adults. Both totally believable, Jay and Arty’s relationship with Uncle Louie is utterly different from their relationships with Eddie Kurnitz, Jay and Arty’s father.
Eddie, played with urgent, nervous physicality tempered in real love by John Colona, is in impossible straits. Newly widowered, he is in over his head in debt to shady characters. Mr. Colona gives us a finely realized Eddie, the weak one. He’s the one who cried even while being scolded by his mother that big boys do not carry on so shamefully.
Mr. Colona’s Eddie explains how such a family produced two boys who credit him so much that one wrote a play with him as a most admirable character in it. Eddie retained his humanity the most of all the siblings, and, therefore, has children who stand more firmly, more solidly and more assuredly on their own feet than their father, aunts and uncle do.
But the heart of the play comes from Aunt Bella. Aunt Bella is mentally challenged. 35, she lives with her mother in the Yonkers apartment where the story takes place. She gets easily excited, easily flustered, easily enraged. And she is full of love.
Lily K. Doyle gives us Bella on the Bridge Players’ stage. She’s had this part on her bucket-list for a while, and I am grateful to her for that. Her performance is moving.
Innocent though not untouched, child-like though middle-aged, finding any reason and taking every opportunity for bits and scratches of happiness, she is also given the wisest and most compassionate lines in the play. Hankies appeared, though some of us, in honor of the comedy, used our sleeves. I thank Ms. Doyle as I do the entire cast for excellent work and solid craft.
But I’ve left out a character. The final character in this solidly inventive staging of the play is not listed in the program. It is not a single person. It is a radio which, covering scene changes, plays old-time radio commercials which drew surprise and delight from the audience, many of whom sang along with the jingles. It was a delightful addition and coverage of a normally deadly time in a play.
The dialects across the board were perfect. Operating totally in support of every character, this often uneven piece of the craft gets the highest marks here. But it was not a perfect production.
Twice it seemed the boys stumbled over staging and the same number of times the staging seemed to squash arbitrarily into a corner. And the radio commercials, while charming, seemed at times to go on a bit too long.
But the mark of good craft is the recovery. There’s not a performer who hasn’t tripped. It’s part of the fun of live performance. And these small gaffes stopped no one on this stage nor drained any enthusiasm for the action from the audience.
The house, fully three-quarters full, was with the action all the way, laughing, tearing, cheering, even calling out audible warnings at tense moments. We were theirs.
Tastily, this is a dessert theatre. We are seated at table with coffee and tea available at will and desserts elegantly served on trays by volunteer company members during intermission. So we have body and soul both fed on this day.
Neil Simon’s singular gift is identifying the gaping injuries extant in nearly all human psyches and building all the possible humor inherent in the situation in relief over the pain. There is nothing simple or easy about staging his plays. The concept, the choices, the craft and the just and tasty desserts make this production at Bridge Players an elegant investment of money and time. You’ll exit with the knowledge that comedy is not a form or a plot. It is a state of mind.
LOST IN YONKERS
by Neil Simon
Directed by Susan Jami Paschkes
through February 25, 2012
Bridge Players Theatre Company
36 E. Broad Street