Sunday, December 6, 2009

Theater review: Maltz's first-rate 'Yonkers' a fine slice of Simon

Maxwell Beer, Sara Surrey and Alex Wyse in Lost in Yonkers.

By Hap Erstein

This has not been a very good theater season for Neil Simon, who suffered a stunning flop with the revival of his Brighton Beach Memoirs in New York last month.

Reviews questioned whether the most successful comic playwright in America’s history in still relevant, though I suspect the play’s failure to find an audience had more to do with the production’s lack of star power at inflated Broadway prices.

While it may be insufficient consolation for him, the year ends much better for Simon, thanks to a first-rate revival of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. The production, which is scheduled to move on to the Cleveland Play House and New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, shows the writer in top form, far more than the reflex joke machine he is often accused on being.

Lost in Yonkers was written in 1990, just after his Brighton Beach trilogy, at a time that he was addressing his Jewish roots and discovering that it was OK if the audience did not laugh every five seconds. There is plenty of humor in the play, but it is remarkable for its sustained dramatic scenes without a single punch line.

It takes place in 1942, and in an admirable stroke of misdirection, Lost in Yonkers first seems to be about Jay and Arty Kurnitz, two young teenage brothers forced to live with their severe, iron-fisted German-American grandmother. Their father is forced to take a job traveling throughout the South, you see, selling scrap iron to pay off the medical debts incurred by his late wife.

After an extended description of Grandma’s brutal ways, which has turned each of her children into an emotionally damaged adult, we meet the woman in the person of Rosemary Prinz, the former As the World Turns soap opera queen, and she handily wrestles the play away from the boys. She gives a wily, surprisingly subtle performance, though ultimately Lost in Yonkers belongs to their Aunt Bella, an addled child-woman whose mind is a little “closed for repairs,” as Jay puts it.

As played by a young actress named Sara Surrey, Bella is such an open-hearted, vulnerable soul, so eager to grow up, find love, have babies and move away from the gravitational pull of her mother, that the play starts to revolve around her.

Michael Bloom, artistic director of The Cleveland Play House, stages the work with a confidence in the material, knowing he does not have to lean on the laugh lines. He gets some fine performances from the two boys -- Alex Wyse and Maxwell Beer, both admirably natural in their behavior and dialogue delivery -- and he and actor Anthony Crane manage to inject some realism into Uncle Louie, a Bogart-wannabe bag man, a role that can easily lapse into caricature.

Set in a richly detailed, yet Germanically austere Yonkers apartment -- designed by Michael Schweikhardt -- that earns murmurs of nostalgic admiration from the audience, this is a slice of Simon for those who do not think they much care for his work. It is well-performed, emotionally moving theater and, yes, it generates more than a few laughs along the way as well.

LOST IN YONKERS. Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Dec. 13. Tickets: $39-$56. Call: (561) 575-2223.

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