Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Lost in Yonkers"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Lost in Yonkers"

by Neil Simon
Directed by Sharon Bisantz

Set and Lighing Designed by Imagine Arts
Costume Design by Norma McGrath
Stage Manager Norma McGrath

Jay.........................Steve Squibb
Arty.......Matthew Bretschneider
Eddie........................Peter Wick
Bella......................Wendy Feign
Grandma............Audrey Abrams
Louie...................Wayne Vargas
Gert........................Kate Tonner

The Hovey Players is a perfect example of an endurng Community Theater tradition. They did their first show when I was two (1934), but they've kept going, and recently built their own little bandbox theater-space which seats about fifty. Members have often worked together, onstage or backstage, for seventeen years or more, and the lineup of old programs in the hall shows they want to do solidly good plays, not simply crowd-pleasers (Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" in May). And their "Lost in Yonkers" --- directed by theatrical workaholic Sharon Bisantz --- is a solid, satisfying reading of Neil Simon's serious comedy.

This is a memory-play set in the first year of World War II and it shows a laughably disfunctional family, still struggling with Depression hardhships and immigrant memories, through the eyes of Jay (15) and Arty (12 and a half) spending an unwilling nine months on the sofa of the family matriarch. She is all stern steel forged in riots in Berlin and a cut-throat attempt to keep a downstairs drugstore alive. Audrey Abrams makes her a stingy, self-reliant menace to grandchildren, and grown children, none of whom can live up to her pitiless rules. She melts only late in the play, and never completely or for long. The strengths that have made her survive also made her suspicious and alone.

Grandma's mainstay is Aunt Bella. Wendy Feign plays her as a yearning grown woman's body inhabited by a mercurial, tempermental, loving child's mind. Her eagernesses, hesitations, enthusiasms and pouts furnish the major battlefield here.

Dropping in (hiding out?) is Uncle Louie, the small-time goniff. Wayne Vargas admits to 24 years of acting, and it all shows in his polished, nuanced, generous performance. He always acts With others, so his experience never upstages, always amplifies.

Illuminating a different aspect of Grandma's withering love is Aunt Gert, whose show-stopping asthmatic wheezes get worse around her mother. Hovey veteran Kate Tonner uses this golden opportunity to put this small support-role at center stage.

Peter Wick plays the boys' father as a nervous, put-upon new widower forced by medical debts and loan-sharks to beg for a chance to make money dealing in wartime scrap-metal, even though it means delivering his boys into the hands of his maternal autocrat. His sweating worry sets up Grandma's imperious entrance, just as his impassioned defense of his dignity announces the theme of the play.

Those are the veterans, the grown-ups, but the two kids are with them every inch of the way. Matthew Bretschneider as Arty (a year younger than the role he plays) has the longer resume and has learned to use his eyes and his posture as much as his voice. He has a tendency in early speeches to drop the ends of sentences --- the way everyone always does when reading aloud --- but that disappears as the show progresses.

Steve Squibb's Jay may well be Neil Simon's self-portrait, and it's his learning to understand why people are what they are that motivates the play. He progresses from scoffer to sympathizer watching all his meshugganah relatives try to live with one another. He hides his sneers and shares his scorn only when safe, but twice his outbursts against oppression ring with adolescent rage overcoming timidity. Each speech ends with "..And another... No, I've said enough." Oddly, Squibb never pauses at that No, which would add all sorts of implications to the speeches. It is the only correctable flaw in his performance.

On this intimate stage, the accurate sets and stage manager Norma McGrath's meticulous set-changes are as important as the acting, because the audience is an active participant every step of the way. At Saturday's performance, that audience made the players earn every laugh. It wasn't Neil Simon's lines, but his characters, brought alive and sent bouncing off one another by the players that they reacted to. And, at final bow, their warm, sincere applause was richly deserved. Community Theater is alive and healthy in a basement in Waltham, Massachusetts.


"Lost in Yonkers" (till 28 March)
9 Spring Street, WALTHAM

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide