Troubled family, dark humor, in 'Lost in Yonkers'

JENNIFER FARRAR Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Who's afraid of grandma? Only everyone who's related to her, in Neil Simon's dysfunctional Kurnitz family, as created in his 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Lost in Yonkers."

Set in 1942, Simon's semi-autobiographical tale of a troubled family dominated by a strong-willed matriarch and the effect she has on her four adult children and two grandsons hasn't been seen in New York since the 1991 Broadway production that ran for almost two years.

The off-Broadway revival by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), which opened Thursday night at The Beckett Theatre, is an absolute delight, and it's clear why this darkly humorous drama won a Pulitzer and four Tony Awards two decades ago, including best play.

Jenn Thompson confidently directs a slightly streamlined version, having removed, with the playwright's approval, most of the voice-over transitions, replacing them with crackling, garbled radio announcements of the era.

Thompson doesn't rush the play along, but allows silences and glances to make their mark, along with the humanity in Simon's dialogue. The drama still resonates with sorrow, regret and repressed anger, as well as glimmers of hope.

Dominic Comperatore is all frazzled nerves as Eddie, a despairing, recently widowed father, forced by circumstances to ask his cold, unfeeling mother to care for his two young teenage sons while he travels the South, buying and selling steel for the war effort.

The dark and dramatic tone is brightened by the wry but earnest delivery of humorous lines by the two boys, here played by Matthew Gumley as Jay, and Russell Posner, making his theater debut -- although you'd never know it -- as younger brother Arty. Both boys have stage presence and charm to spare, as feisty, wise-acre kids who even dare, sometimes, to speak up with their grandmother.

Finnerty Steeves is absolutely heartbreaking as the boys' delightfully sweet, simple-minded Aunt Bella, who lives at home under the strict domination of her mother. Steeves shines with desperate inner determination as Bella unexpectedly but bravely argues with her tyrannical mother to have the boys live with them and later on, when she struggles to work up the courage to fight for her own personal freedom.

Cynthia Harris dominates the stage and the family, fiercely stern as the boys' stone-faced, cane-wielding grandmother, who has always ruled the household with an iron fist. A German Jew who fled persecution by the Nazis, the bitter widow was determined to make all her children strong and stoic, but her harsh methods instead produced what Bella angrily calls "thieves and sick little girls."

Kurnitz's harsh personality is not completely explained until late in the play, yet while Grandma says things to the boys like "It's not important that you love me," Harris gives occasional glimpses of humanity through her stony facade.

Alec Beard is quite likable as Uncle Louie, a small-time gangster with a cynical outlook. Temporarily hiding out in his mother's house from some shady business contacts, Louie kindly gives the boys some practical advice about how to deal with his tricky mother. Stephanie Cozart makes a brief but important appearance as Bella's sister Gert, finding both the humor and pathos in poor Gert, whose experience with their mother's cruel child-rearing methods has left her unable to speak without gasping.

With this fine cast on John McDermott's period-perfect, slightly claustrophobic set, Simon's quirky characters have come to life again, as easy to care about now as they were twenty-one years ago.

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Online:

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