On a hot Sunday in 1942, Eddie Kurnitz, deeply in debt to a loanshark, foists his two teenage sons off on his steel edelweiss mother. Grandma Kurnitz has survived horrors aplenty in her life, "und I didn't cry," she informs the boys, who will spend the next 10 months in her oppressive household in Yonkers. It turns out that this Wicked Witch of the sixth borough didn't cry because she abhors tears above all else — they might melt her. The Kurnitz family's pathology unfolds gradually within Village Theatre's new production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Neil Simon.
In many ways, Lost in Yonkers feels like a social message play from the 1950s, right at home with Long Day's Journey Into Night or The Crucible. Members of the Kurnitz family have been scarred — figuratively and literally — by anti-Semitism, intellectual disability, and child abuse. Yet none of these terms, so casually bandied about in 1991 when the play debuted on Broadway, are used by the characters.
Directed by Tony Award-winner Brian Yorkey, Lost in Yonkers avoids the script-killing pit of despair into which it could sink in the hands of a lesser director. However, in making sure the comedy doesn't succumb to its dark prefix, Yorkey demonstrates that he doesn't quite trust the script. Lost in Yonkers is both inherently hilarious and inherently gruesome. There is nothing funny about a woman locking her mentally slow daughter in a closet all night to teach her a lesson, yet it inspires plenty of laughter when the audience learns that the daughter found the experience fun, like camping.
That's the brilliance ofLost in Yonkers: it is heartwarming to watch each character experience the worst of tragedies because their endurance is a battle cry for the survival of the human spirit. However, the script is littered with booby traps in the forms of one-liners and quips that are incredibly tempting to play like cheap sitcom bits. The pay off is a big laugh from the audience. The downside is the transformation of the character into a caricature.
Surprisingly, the actor who seems to instinctively understand this is the youngest member of the cast. As 13 1/2-year-old Arty, Nick Robinson delivers a whole Odd Couple's worth of zingers so naturally that it seems as if Neil Simon cast the lad himself. Time after time, he nails the dry but utterly guileless delivery of a kid who is mourning his mother's death while dealing with a slew of basket case relatives. Close seconds are Collin Morris as his older brother, Jay, and Bradford Farwell as their father, Eddie. Both seem to struggle at times with what one suspects was a direction to "make with the funny" during particularly pathos-ridden moments. Unfortunately, since they're older, they go ahead and obey.
Suzy Hunt, however, is seasoned enough to rebel, and she is fearsome yet completely sympathetic as the play's monster, Grandma Kurnitz. Unfortunately, her could-have-been tour de force performance is hindered by the over-the-top antics of Jennifer Lee Taylor as her childlike 35-year-old daughter, Bella. Like a Seinfeld walk-on contemporaneous with the play's first run, Taylor's Bella is all daffy delivery and dopey dumbness. She would have been at home in one of Village Theatre's musical comedies, but her overblown silliness is an out-of-place burden here. Sadly, it's only during the play's wrenching climax that the audience realizes what an effort Taylor was making to force the "Yawn-kahs yutz" routine. Had she exchanged the broad comedy for her final poignant ingenuousness, it would have made for a stellar performance. Screen and TV veteran Mike Dooly is appropriately menacing yet convivial as Louie, a poor man's Meyer Lansky; Karen Skrinde does what she can with throw-away character Gert.
Set designer Bill Forrester creates a haven/hell of verdigris overlaid with severely polished wood that offers plenty of escape routes, but no way out. Costume designer Melanie Burgess makes smart choices for each character, providing the feel of the 1940s without being clichÃ¨d. Helpful program notes inform the audience that Eddie's debt due to his wife's medical bills was more than the price of two houses and a car combined, while Grandma Kurnitz pettily grouses over the theft of some pretzels that cost less than a gallon of gas.
Lost in Yonkers is on stage through March 28 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, located at 2710 Wetmore Ave. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $17-$52 and are available by calling (888) 257-3722 or visiting www.villagetheatre.org.