Stagecrafters Theater in Chestnut Hill opened with Neil Simon’s LOST IN YONKERS Friday evening. Some people consider Neil Simon “stock” theater, a revenue generator, but I heartily disagree. Simon writes about real relationships and family dynamics in a skillfully humorous way, with just enough drama to keep the mind engaged and the heart invested. LOST IN YONKERS is no exception. Both a Tony and Pulitzer recipient, there’s a reason this play has been produced endlessly since its Broadway debut in 1991.
Set in 1942 under the ominous events in Europe, the setting is a New York apartment that sits just above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store. Grandma Kurnitz is proprietor and staunch matriarch of her home, consisting of just herself and her daughter Bella. The story begins with Grandma’s desperate son Eddie (Eric Rupp) forced to return to his stern mother’s home to request she watch his young boys Jay and Arty while he goes down south to earn enough money to pay off a debt.
The boys are rambunctious young teens, anxious and fearful to live in such a cold, loveless home. Young Arty (Tommy Van Dean) recalls kissing Grandma, “it felt like putting your lips on a wrinkled ice cube.” But a spark of warmth and familiarity offers the promise of survival in the strict surroundings, with crazy “closed for repairs” Aunt Bella protecting them from Grandma’s wooden cane and icy demeanor. The boys guide us through their rocky time with Grandma, where we meet other interesting members of the family like voiceless sister Gert and Uncle Louie, considered the James Cagney of the family, aptly played by Jeffrey Adam Baxt. The center dramatic action of the story is the strained relationship between Bella and Grandma. Longing for a family and life of her own despite her mental impairment, we watch how child-like Bella attempts to break her bonds while trying to maintain her position in the family.
Director Loretta Lucy Miller’s heart for this show is unmistakable. She adeptly told the sentimental story, but brought forth the humor so much in the play that one has to wonder, is it a comedy or a drama? These are the questions avid theatre-goers love to ask.
With the stellar cast, it’s hard to say who stood out more, performances were all so well acted. The chemistry between older brother Jay, masterfully played by Jonathan Glick, and young Tommy Van Dean was just perfect. Their dynamic had just the right amount of adolescent rivalry and brotherly support. Van Dean was simply a natural on stage, lots of fun to watch. Glick, being far older than his character’s true age, proved what acting chops he has, his training very evident. Diana Finegold as Grandma portrayed the staunch German mother with a believable iciness, yet we truly softened to her when we discover why she’d developed her hard exterior shell. Moriah Gornstein as Bella played opposite her strict mother with much comedy and a truthful frenetic energy. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Bella’s desperation and exasperation at being denied her dreams at her cold mother’s hand, but her light portrayal did offer relief during Bella’s frequent awkward moments. And speaking of desperate, Eric Rupp’s portrayal of a man with his back against the wall was inspiring. From the perspiration on his brow, to the natural way he corrected his boys, he played such a sympathetic character, I wanted to see more. Delightful supporting performances by Jeffrey Adam Baxt as Uncle Louie and Ilana Brookshier as Gert. Appropriate show music by Bill Bansbach, and a great set by Scott Killinger. If you’re new to Neil Simon, this production will get you hooked. Bravo to the director, crew and cast.
LOST IN YONKERS
by Neil Simon
directed by Lorettta Lucy Miller
Sept 14 – 30, 2012
8130 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19118