Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Music/Theater

FAMILY DISCORD: Fierce Grandma Kurnitz (Carolyn Vasko) confronts her two grandsons, Arty (Mark Watter, left) and Jay (Jordan Adelson, right), and their father Eddie (Dan Yawitz, behind) in one of many clashes during the boys’ ten-month visit, in Theatre Intime’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” playing through October 9.

Devastating Family Discord Interweaves With Trademark Humor In Neil Simon’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-Winning “Lost in Yonkers”

Donald Gilpin

Vast character stretches are the order of the day in Theatre Intime’s production of Neil Simon’s dark, comic, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Lost in Yonkers (1991), running through October 8 at the Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus. This portrait of a troubled family’s struggles during the war years of the early 1940s focuses on two teen-aged boys and their ten-month stay at their austere grandmother’s Yonkers apartment, where they learn more than they bargained for about their fierce grandma, their mentally slow Aunt Bella, their Bogart-style, underworld Uncle Louie, and other challenges of coming of age.

This array of colorful characters, spanning three generations in the Kurnitz family, poses unusual challenges for any theater company. The Intime ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Eric Traub, displays impressive ambition in taking on one of Mr. Simon’s most serious and demanding works. This is not the world of Mr. Simon’s classic comedies of the 1960s, like Barefoot in the Park (1963), which was on the Murray Dodge stage in a Princeton Summer Theater production just three months ago, or The Odd Couple (1965). And, though the two young protagonists here, as in Mr. Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), which played at Intime last spring, provide the audience’s perspective on what often resembles Mr. Simon’s own family, Lost in Yonkers depicts a much more serious and unsettling world than that of his earlier comedies.

It is the sternly controlling presence of Grandma and her battle with the much-delayed rebellion of her spirited and charming but developmentally stunted 35-year-old daughter Bella that ultimately dominates the proceedings and constitutes the core of this play. Carolyn Vasko as Grandma Kurnitz, with whitened hair, thick German accent, and a weapon-like cane, convincingly creates this terrifying, bitter and oppressive matriarch.

As her daughter, Taylor Mallory successfully delivers the requisite charm and also the bubbliness and “closed for repairs” confusion that characterize her emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped state. What Ms. Mallory’s youthful characterization never establishes, however, is the anguish and desperately longing need for love and intimacy of a 35-year-old woman who has been under the roof and ice-cold domination of her mother for at least fifteen years too long. Mr. Simon’s awkward mix of comedy and tragedy in this play may be partly to blame, but crucial mother-daughter confrontations in the final third of the play fall a bit flat in the absence of the likes of Tony Award-winning Irene Worth (Grandma) and Mercedes Ruehl (Bella), who played the parts in the original Broadway production.

In addition to Ms. Vasko’s Grandma, other Intime actors making the character stretches with successful commitment, imagination and credibility include Jordan Adelson as 15-year-old Jay, Mark Watter as his 13–year-old brother Arty, and Matt Seely as the gangsterish Uncle Louie.

As the lights rise on the first of two acts, Arty and Jay are waiting tensely in Grandma’s second floor parlor above her Yonkers candy store, as their father Eddie (Dan Yawitz) talks with his mother in her room offstage. His wife has recently passed away, and Eddie, lacking confidence, desperate for money and pursued by loan sharks, must persuade Grandma to take the boys for ten months while he goes on the road selling scrap iron to earn the $9000 he needs to pay his creditors.

Even before Grandma finally appears, about halfway through act one, it is clear that persuading her to take in her young grandsons will be difficult and living with her next to impossible. Aunt Bella, however, embraces the prospect of long-term company in the house. After confiding in her young nephews that she has met a man who works as an usher at the movies and that she, implausibly, plans to marry him, she saves the day by taking the boys’ side and threatening to move out herself if the grandsons do not stay.

Eddie departs, though he is heard from through his letters that arrive regularly from his travels in the South, and next to appear is another damaged sibling, Uncle Louie, a mobster henchman, who, complete with pistol under his jacket, mysterious black bag in hand, and all the requisite gangster demeanor, is, of course, hugely impressive and frightening to the two boys.

The last family member in the mix, Aunt Gert (Sarah Wiest), arrives late in act two, as Bella assembles all the family support she can get for her announcement of her marriage intentions. Also enduring the effects of Grandma’s austere parenting, Gert suffers from high anxiety and a chronic lung ailment, which forces her to inhale the ends of all her speeches. Unlike her sister, however, Gert has at least been able to move out to her own apartment.

As Bella approaches her cathartic, climactic confrontation with Grandma, the pressure also builds for Arty and Jay, living under the same roof — and working in the candy store — with the Kurnitz matriarch.

Lost in Yonkers turns out to be a coming of age drama in many ways: for the two boys who must live apart from their father, struggle daily under the yoke of their grandmother and cannot help but entwine themselves in the desperate lives of their aunt and uncle; for Bella, who finally asserts herself to demand from her mother the love and independence that she has needed for so long; for Eddie, who finds the courage to speak up to his mother with honesty; and perhaps for Grandma Kurnitz too, who never appears to soften but surely must learn something about love from this assault on her authority by all of her hitherto submissive relatives.

Daniel Rattner’s unit set, lighting by Alex Kasdin, and period costumes by Izzy Kasdin combine effectively to establish the world of this play. A large red period sofa at center stage, with lace anti-macassars in place, anchors the action. Doors to downstairs and to the interior rooms also help to stage the proceedings clearly, smoothly, and realistically.

The Kurnitz clan provides an entertaining evening and some excellent humor, although, in the canon of family dramas, Lost in Yonkers is more similar in spirit to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, both written and set in the 1940s, than it is to the rest of Mr. Simon’s remarkable oeuvre of more than thirty comedic plays and equal number of screenplays. It’s an interesting, ambitious and promising season opener for the young Intime company.

“Lost in Yonkers” will run for one more weekend, October 6-8, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, October 8, at the Murray Dodge Theater on the University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for tickets. For information, visit www.theatreintime.org.

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