note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey
No one would argue that Neil Simon is America's most popular playwright, yet legions of theater folk dismiss him for being too slick and for writing "joke" plays. "Lost in Yonkers" won Simon the Pulitzer, and for good reason: the one-liners take a back seat to masterful storytelling when the story about a family in crisis turns into a nifty morality tale.
The Lyric's production mostly steers clear of the broad performances which characterized the Broadway production. Director Spiro Veloudos takes advantage of the Lyric's small size to give an intimate, very personal view of the Kurnitz family.
Grandma Kurnitz is a formidable woman who got her children out of Germany just in time. Simon sets "Lost in Yonkers" at the beginning of World War II, and although this immigrant Jewish family is alive and safe in New York, they are strangers to each other until circumstances force them to face up.
What makes Simon's play rise above the ordinary is his humanity, especially around the two boys who have to live with their grandmother after their mother dies. Simon manages to capture a child's perspective, and it's truly delightful to see these boys listen attentively to the adults and then interpret the facts for themselves. He is sweetly sentimental without being maudlin. Simon surprises us when characters you least expect to, are able to see the truth.
Most lovely is the character of Bella, the boys' developmentally disabled aunt, who Grandma says will always be a child. You see, Grandma is wronmg. Bella is the real strength of the play. Fortunately, she is played for her goodness, not her weakness. In the Lyric's production, Sarah Newhouse gives her a few requisite tics to suggest the Scarlet Fever damage, but she plays her with an open heart and the stage lights up with her warmth.
Sheila Ferrini is the severe Grandma who is afraid to open herself to more pain. It's a bravura performance where less is more. Ferrini speaks volumes with her silence and rigidity, with a twitch of a muscle or the white-knuckle grip on her cane.
Ken Baltin has the showy role of Uncle Louie, the bagman. He swaggers, he struts, he preens just this side of caricature. And if you miss the "anything for a laugh" Neil Simon, there's the character of Aunt Gert(Ilyse Robbins), who speaks like an accordion.
Robert Saoud is the long-suffering father, and he gives the man depth and humor. You can see, in his performance, where the boys get their mensch-hood. The two brothers, portrayed by Jesse and Matthew Soursourian who are two brothers, will melt your heart. They're consumate professionals, with the comic timing of septuagenarians. Kudos to Veloudos for his emphasis on the small things, and to Janie E. Howland for the cramped but cozy livingroom set, and to Jane Hillier-Walkowiak for her funny, nostalgic period costumes which set the mood --- from Louie's loud tie to Grandma's steel cane.