Neil Simon

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.

 

 

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Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite at Riverfront Community Players

The Riverfront Community Players made the perfect artistic decision to present Plaza Suite just before summer. It’s doubtful that Neil Simon’s pessimistic, but comical, take on marriage would’ve been a good choice for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving weekend or the Holiday Season. I attended the June 9th evening performance at the Samuel M. Ridgway Middle School in Edgewater Park. Linda Golden directed.

Plaza Suite seemed a bit of a misnomer for this Neil Simon piece. For in it, the playwright provided three takes on marriage that were anything but ‘sweet.’ The show consisted of three separate acts involving different characters. Each occurred in Suite 719 of the Plaza Suite Hotel. The first allowed audiences to witness the disintegration of a 23 (or 24) year marriage. Act II placed two affection starved characters in the same hotel room. The male lead had endured three failed marriages. The woman, lips loosened by liquor, let out that her marriage was imploding. The finale showed a bride too timorous to leave the bathroom on her wedding day. She loved her fiancé, but she feared that their marriage would become like her parents’.

See what I mean about not staging this show from November through February?

Mr Simon subtitled the first act Visitor from Mamaroneck. In this vignette, Karen Nash (played by Chrissy Wick) planned on celebrating a romantic anniversary with her husband, Sam (played by Zach Wishnefsky). For this event, she reserved the same suite where they spent their honeymoon. The festivities turned into anything but joyous within moments of Sam’s entering the room. The two got into an argument regarding the precise date and year of their marriage. They also disputed Karen’s age. The subtext showed a marriage in despair. Sam’s behavior demonstrated his experiencing a ‘mid-life crisis.’

Chrissy Wick turned in a superb performance as the dutiful wife. Ms. Wick portrayed a woman yearning for her husband’s affections who steadily realized she couldn’t have them. She transitioned from a happily married woman into a figure coping with an unexpected tragedy very well. Her tears at scene’s end seemed genuine.

As Neil Simon wrote this script, the character still needed to make the audience laugh: with physical humor. Ms. Wick didn’t disappoint. While wearing a single galosh, she got laughs as she dragged her foot across the floor.

Zach Wishnefski portrayed the austere, career oriented husband. The performer selected a warm voice that well suited the role. Mr. Wishnefsky made Sam into a man always in control. Whether barking orders into the phone or (repeatedly) correcting his wife, he always remained in command…until he told his wife he didn’t know what he wanted out of life. The performer brought out this change very credibly. He played a well-ordered man suffering from inner turmoil that even he didn’t understand. Mr. Wishnefsky executed this task with profound ability.

The Visitor from Hollywood skit comprised Act II. In this one, successful Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (played by Marc Steinberg) invited his high school flame Muriel Tate (played by Amy Bannister) whom he hadn’t seen in 17 years to…wait for it…Suite 719 at the Plaza Suite Hotel. Following three failed marriages, and dealing with insincere Hollywood types, he longed to reconnect with the one woman he believed “authentic.” Star struck at first by her high school beau’s success, Muriel became very nervous. She imbibed a series of vodka stingers to help her relax. In the process, she revealed her own marital woes.

Marc Steinberg played the jaded Hollywood power broker very well. He talked in a nonchalant fashion about the famous people with whom he worked. While discussing his own capability for making profitable movies he sounded bored. During the scene’s opening, Mr. Steinberg convinced the audience Jesse was a lothario looking to score with his former girlfriend. By its end he transitioned the character into a person seeking a more meaningful relationship. Mr. Steinberg portrayed this change very convincingly.

Amy Bannister made Muriel the funniest character in the show. When she first appeared on stage, she fidgeted and commented about how “nervous” she felt in the presence of such a famous producer. I enjoyed how she contradicted herself with her dialog. After using a hairdressing appointment as her reason for needing to leave, she kept changing the time. When Mr. Steinberg questioned the equivocation, her riposte “it’s flexible” made the audience chuckle. As Ms. Bannister’s character continued drinking, she spoke with the slurred speech and loosened inhibitions of someone under the influence. The performer fused this with her dialog to make Muriel a joy to watch.

The Visitor from Forest Hills made up the most comical scene. Mimsey Hubley (played by Jaclyn Clark) locked herself in the bathroom on her wedding day. Norma Hubley (played by Lisa Croce) and Roy Hubley (John Hughes) spent the act attempting to coax her out of it. When they couldn’t, they determined to discover her reason for doing so.

Following the show, I spoke with Lisa Croce. She said that she and Mr. Hughes worked together in the past. It showed. The two displayed marvelous stage chemistry with one another in Plaza Suite.

With the nature of the situation, Mr. Hughes’ dialog contained many comical lines. The performer expressed them flawlessly. It’s ironic that his best stage time entailed non-verbal communication. After speaking with his daughter off stage, he re-entered with a forlorn look on his face. His expression allowed me to guess what she told him. That’s superb acting.

Lisa Croce possesses a gift for delivering comical lines with aplomb. She didn’t disappoint in Plaza Suite. My favorite occurred when the character’s daughter slipped a note through the bathroom door. Mimsey wrote that she wanted to speak with her father. She’d scribbled it on the only source available. Ms. Croce commented, “It figures she’d write it on that” in reference to the toilet paper.

Ms. Croce also displayed some exceptional non-verbal cues of her own. Her best took place when Roy said something to the effect, “I did my best raising her. I don’t know why she’s like that.” I found Ms. Croce’s expression even funnier than the punch line. Only someone as talented as she could get laughs with a serious look.

Mr. Simon crafted each scene very well. All contained strong conflict. He added some surprise plot twists that made Plaza Suite a solid work of drama. The script did contain some poor dialog, however. I’ve written before that one can’t blame actors for bad writing. It’s not fair to criticize them for following instructions as Shakespeare wrote, to “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2) It is, however, appropriate to criticize playwrights for not providing them better material with which to work.

The Visitor from Hollywood section began with an excessive amount of backstory. At times I thought the actors were reading their characters’ biographies. I give Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Bannister credit for doing their best to make the lines sound like a natural conversation.

While worrying that his daughter may cancel her wedding, Roy Hubley talked about the wedding’s cost. And talked about it. And talked about it some more. At one point, I wanted to shout out, “I get it! A wedding’s expensive! Next!” Mr. Hughes worked around this by pacing and talking like someone muttering in disgust. He put on a clinic for how actors can handle getting stuck with bad dialog.

I would also credit performers Jackie Clark and Bill Upham for their contributions to the production.

Neil Simon found the humor in marital troubles. The cast and crew of the Riverfront Community Players made them absolutely entertaining in Plaza Suite. While the show wrapped this weekend, we can look forward to watching these performers apply their craft to other tragedies of the human condition in the future. Hopefully, they won’t make us wait until Thanksgiving to do so.

 

Rumors at the Ritz Theatre Company

This September 9th, I experienced an evening of hitting, characters assuming tasks they’re not accustomed to and a host of misunderstandings. One couldn’t select a more appropriate prelude to the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 season. Unlike the Birds’ woes, however, the Ritz Theatre Company intended to present a comical performance to fans. They staged Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Al Fuchs.

Attempts to evade and/or cover-up a perceived political scandal served as the characters’ motivations. While a ubiquitous topic for non-fiction writers, Mr. Simon utilized his unique comic craft as only he could. He entertained the audience with a fictitious take on an unusual one involving the strangest cover-up ever attempted. The playwright’s skill along with the superb performances transformed this common topic into an original masterpiece.

Ken Gorman (played by Brian Rivell) and his wife Chris (played by Suzanne Yocus) arrived at the Deputy Mayor of New York’s home. They’d planned on attending a party celebrating His Honor’s tenth anniversary. Instead Ken discovered him bleeding and unconscious with a gun next at his side. Mr. Gorman happened to be both the host’s attorney and friend. He didn’t want word of the incident leaked until understanding what happened. He and Chris decided not to tell the authorities.

Brian Rivell delivered a spirited performance as Ken Gorman. One has to credit him for maintaining his focus while tasked with running up and down stairs all evening. He didn’t allow the role’s physical demands to impede his comic timing. He excelled in the latter when his character became temporarily deaf.

Suzanne Yocus served as the perfect counterpart to Mr. Rivell in the role of Chris Gorman. The anxious way she scurried about the stage battling her craving for a cigarette almost made me long to break my twenty year fast. Ms. Yocus also managed to stagger about the set as though intoxicated. I credit her for still delivering her lines clearly while playing a character in that state.

Following the Gormans’ decision to keep the Deputy Mayor’s condition quiet, the Gatzs arrived. Kumar Goonewardene nailed the language and accent of a foul mouthed New Yorker. That’s quite a stretch for someone living in the culturally sophisticated South Jersey area.

Later in the show his character took on a separate role within the play. Mr. Ganz played the Deputy Mayor when the police inquired about gunshots. Mr. Goonewardene delivered a monumental soliloquy explaining what happened. What Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” was to drama, this one was to comedy. The performer convincingly spoke his lines like someone coming up with them extemporaneously. That served as the true highlight of this show.

Jean Collelouri as (Claire Ganz) took on arguably the most challenging role in the show. Her character had the tasks of trying to get the truth out of the Gormans, laying out all the gossip that gave the show its title and playing a jealous wife. Ms. Collelouri met all of these difficult tasks brilliantly.

Then the most interesting invitees arrived. In the couple of Ernie Cusak (Michael Murphy) and Cookie Cusack (Carol Furphy-Labinski), Mr. Simon may have created the most unusual husband and wife team in the history of theatre. Mr. Murphy played a psycho-analyst and Ms. Furphy-Labinsky the host of a cooking show. Had the entire show focused on them, it would’ve still justified the ticket cost.

Mr. Murphy did an exceptional job getting into his character. His beard, moustache and glasses gave him a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. The soft voice and calm manner of talking complimented his character’s persona. The low-keyed way he played this role made the scene when he lost his temper much more humorous.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky had both the privilege and the challenge of delivering the show’s funniest line. When her character discussed her back trouble, she explained, “It only hurts when I stand up or sit down.” She expressed the line perfectly.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky also wore the most comical attire. One of the characters called it an odd item to wear to a dinner party. While the script referred to it as Russian, it brought to mind a Bavarian maid’s attire. Did this performer utilize it to subliminally signal future directors her openness to performing in The Sound of Music?

This group of characters made for a very amusing show. But Mr. Simon kept the comedy coming. Glenn Cooper (played by Robert B. Colleluori) and Cassie Cooper (Jennie Knackstedt) rounded out the ensemble. Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This couple pushed the envelope on the latter.

Mr. Colleluori played a character running for state senate. Facing his wife’s rumors regarding infidelity challenged him more than the upcoming election. The performer delivered a series of denials with increasing intensity. He captured the complexities of a politician’s behavior. At first he hesitated to give his name to the policeman questioning him. When the officer later said he looked familiar, his character couldn’t resist effusively announcing his bid for state senate.

Ms. Knackstedt’s interpretation of the haughty, Cassie, brought to mind Dan Aykroyd’s Winthorp in Trading Places. Ms. Knackstedt’s choice of voice captured the character’s affluent background. She expressed herself in such a way that made her tone sound both exaggerated, but still believable that someone would speak in that manner. That’s not an easy balance to execute.

I would’ve preferred more applicable music playing before the show and during intermission. I presume the director opted for 1980s pop music since Rumors premiered in 1988. Since the play centered on a high society dinner party, I thought either ‘cocktail jazz’ or classical string music would’ve established the mood better.

With all these hijinks occurring, Officer Welch (Stephen Coar) and Officer Pudney (Abbe Elliot) rounded out the dramatis personae. After Mr. Ganz in the guise of the Deputy Mayor tried describing the evening’s events, Mr. Coar’s character delivered another of the show’s memorable lines. It would serve as a good summation of the entire script: “I didn’t believe a word of it, but I liked it.”

The Ritz Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, introduced Rumors with a bit of bravado. He started telling the audience: “If you enjoy the show, spread the word.” He then modified his remarks by re-stating them as: “After you enjoy the show, spread the word.” There’s an appropriate epigram attributed in various forms to people from Dizzy Dean to Jaco Pastorious. It reads: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” The cast and crew did just that. Based on this performance’s quality, rumor has it they’ll continue doing so through the entire run. It ends September 24th.

 

Neil Simon’s Rumors Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

I heard a rumor that Burlington County Footlighters were putting on a show that featured a series of misunderstandings, slapstick humor and numerous comedic antics. Much to my relief they didn’t present a stage rendition of a Three’s Company episode. On Friday night I experienced the pleasure of attending the opening night showing of Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Scott Angehr.

The title served as a good summation of this show’s content.  Upon arriving for a dinner party hosted by the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife, guests Ken Gorman (Played by Gary Werner) and Chris Gorman (played by Corinne Hower-Greene) discovered him bleeding while his wife and servants were missing. They suspected he attempted suicide. They then called a doctor. When Chris got him on the phone, Ken then told her to say everything was fine. It turned out the Deputy Mayor only shot off part of his earlobe. Ken thought it best to discover what happened before contacting anyone else. He didn’t want his friend to get involved in a scandal.

Following that, more guests started arriving. Lenny Ganz (played by Paul Sollimo) and Claire Ganz (Megan Shafranski) entered the house. Ken and Chris used a series of stories to explain why the Deputy Mayor, his wife and the servants weren’t at the party. After they discovered the truth, more guests showed up. The four of them decided not to tell the new arrivals, Ernie Cusack (Greg Northram) and Cookie Cusack (Valerie Brothers), what had happened. This turned in to quite a challenge as Mr. Cusack worked as a psychoanalyst.

Gossip swirled around the characters’ romantic peccadillos. That led to even more misunderstandings. Are you following the plot at all? Well, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that all these antics made for an enjoyable evening of comedic mishaps from a series of quirky characters played by talented thespians.

The true highlight of the evening took place in the interplay between Glenn Cooper (played by Dan Brothers) and his wife Cassie (played by the omni-talented Rachel Comenzo). In the past I’ve watched Mr. Brothers perform serious dramatic roles. Most recently I saw him play the grief-stricken father in Footlighters’ production of Rabbit Hole. I’ve also attended several performances featuring Ms. Comenzo. She’s a gifted actress, but I’ve always thought her a stronger singer and dancer. When I read the cast list, it interested me to see how the two of them would play a married couple in a comedy. They both delivered performances well in excess of my expectations.

There’s an old adage about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Ms. Comenzo showed that Humorous Heaven has a special place for one, too. She did a phenomenal job of balancing anger and comedy in her opening argument with Mr. Brothers. I liked the way she could raise her voice in the context of an emotional conversation while still speaking clearly. Following this outburst, she admired herself in the mirror. These mannerisms provided great insight into the character.

Mr. Brothers did a fantastic job playing the “innocent” husband in the face of his wife’s accusations. In addition, he handled the physical comedy very well. In the hands of most performers slapstick becomes caricature. Mr. Brothers demonstrated that he isn’t “most performers.” He convincingly handled falling down after getting hit by a door. The most memorable moment of his performance occurred after his wife assaulted him with a phone. Mr. Brothers has a natural bass voice. With cotton stuffed up his nose he spoke in a high-pitched nasal squeal. Like his counterpart, he talked very clearly.

Proficiency at physical comedy must run in the family. Mr. Brother’s real-life wife, Valerie Brothers, got in on the act in her role as Cookie Cusack. Her character suffered from back problems that prevented her from both “walking” and “sitting”.  The audience roared as she made her way across the stage on her hands and feet with her body at a 90 degree angle. In order to do that she first had to lift herself out of a chair using only her upper body.

As readers if this blog are aware, in the past I’ve been attacked for making “troubling” and “disturbing” comments about female costuming. During this show I did have an observation about one of the actress’ attire. In the interest of artistic integrity I’m going to state it.

Corrine Hower-Greene played Chris Gorman, very well. From the trembling voice, the facial expressions and stumbling around the stage with a wine bottle she displayed the appropriate mannerisms of a neurotic woman. I thought some of her attire too distracting, though. While the plain black evening gown she wore contrasted well with the solid white background, my eyes kept getting drawn to her shoes. I agree that glittery silver shoes would be appropriate attire for a dinner party. I could imagine her character wearing them to such an occasion. For me, they stood out and kept diverting my attention. With the exception of Valerie Brothers, whose character wore a white dress, all the other actors wore dark colored shoes. As I wrote, Ms. Hower-Green is an exceptional performer with great stage presence. Audiences should be watching her performance, not staring at her shoes.

The antics and misunderstandings continued until the final curtain. The surprise ending left open the possibility of a sequel. If someone writes one, let’s hope the cast of Burlington County Footlighters’ production is available. They had such fantastic chemistry working together that I’d welcome the opportunity to see them reprise these roles. And that’s a fact, not a rumor.