Lost in Yonkers

Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.

 

 

Drama Review – Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon

Writing either comedy or tragedy challenges any playwright. Few possess the skill to pen either of these genres well. Rarer still are those dramatists with the proficiency to combine the two in the same work while concurrently creating compelling journeys for the characters. In his Pulitzer Prize winning masterwork, Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon executed all these daunting feats.

The play delivered an original take on a “coming of age” story. While Jay’s and Arty’s mother suffered with terminal cancer their father, Eddie, accumulated a large debt to pay for her treatment. In order to pay it off, he accepted a job that required him to travel throughout the country. After some cajoling and begging he talked his mother, whom he rarely visited after his marriage, into taking his sons in his absence. Since the grandmother and Aunt Bella operated a candy store, this would seem like a boy’s dream. Grandma’s strict temperament made it otherwise. Their interaction with eccentric characters such as the mysterious Uncle Louie, Aunt Bella and Aunt Gert added to the play’s appeal.

Mr. Simon developed a unique ability to express humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. It’s one feature that set him apart from other playwrights. Eddie explained that the loan shark he borrowed the money from sent flowers to his wife’s funeral. He had the following witty take on his own situation. (All the ellipses appeared in the original text.)

Eddie: …There is no way I can pay this man back…So what’ll he do? Kill me?…Maybe …If he kills me, he not only loses his money, it’ll probably cost him again for the flowers for my funeral. (Page 23)

I also liked the amusing way Eddie explained how he got into financial trouble.

Eddie: …I couldn’t go to a bank because they don’t let you put up heartache and pain as collateral…You know what collateral is, Arty?…You have to give them something to hold that’s worth eleven dollars…That’s for their interest…A Shylock doesn’t need collateral…His  collateral is your desperation…So he gives you his money…And he’s got a clock. And when you get your money, the clock starts…And what it keeps time of is your promise…If you keep your promise, he turns off the clock…and if not, it keeps ticking…and after a while, your heart starts ticking louder than his clock…” (Page 22)

As with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers contained an emotional confrontation scene towards the end of the play. During an argument with Grandma, Bella angrily asserted that she envied her two deceased siblings. In the denouement from this exchange, Grandma reached a painful moment of self-realization.

Bella: I’m sorry, Momma…I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Grandma: Yes. You do…It’s my punishment for being alive…for not surviving my own children…Not dying before them is my sin…” (Page 113)

Grandma expressed quite a revealing statement here. Throughout the play she conducted herself as a rather unemotional person. Earlier she delivered the following thoughts on Eddie to his children: “Your father vants you to grow up, first let him grow up.” (Page 36)

While the comedic quips in Lost in Yonkers stood out the most, Mr. Simon added much more depth to the story than that would suggest. In spite of the tragedies and traumas affecting all of the characters’ lives, they all became better people by the end. It takes a very special playwright to fuse all these disparate elements into the same piece. It’s difficult to laugh at the playwright for that achievement.