Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Lost in Yonkers"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Lost in Yonkers"

by Neil Simon
Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Costumes Designed by Jane Hillier-Walkowiak
Lighting Designed by Karen Perlow
Stage Manager Susan Putnam

Jay.............Jesse Soursourian
Arty..........Matthew Soursourian
Eddie................Robert Saoud
Bella..............Sarah Newhouse
Grandma Kurnitz....Sheila Ferrini
Louie..................Ken Baltin
Gert................Ilyse Robbins

Spiro Veloudos has taken this play away from the kids --- who have a lot of funny quips --- and given it to the grown-ups. The unfolding story twines around Sheila Ferrini's dour, suspicious, righteously and rigidly imperious Grandma, who is always a presence onstage even before her entrance. Everyone offers opinions about what makes her as cold as steel as well as hard --- she does so herself. It's only when her addled, grown yet childish daughter cries out "I want to have babies, and to Love Them!" that the real flaw in her withered life is exposed. And there aren't many laugh-lines in that scene.

Sarah Newhouse as that daughter knows how to handle her iron colonel of a mother: where it counts, she ignores her. Grandma, with cruel dispassion, rejects her weak son's plea that she board his kids while he desperately tries to make money --- but Bella is already making the sofa into a bed for them. Told "you'll always be a child" she still expects she will become a married woman. Newhouse does a perfect job of keeping her own iron will wrapped in warm, soft love.

Robert Saoud plays the kids' father, whose love for his kids and his dead wife is that dangerous weakness Grandma fights from feeling. Perhaps he does need to learn strength, as Grandma insists, but in order to add it to his compassion, not to substitute it, as she did.

And if he is weak, Ken Baltin's Uncle Louie is strong, but devious. He respects Grandma's strength, but uses his own selfishly. He's the only one of the family with a sense of playful humor, but like all his other siblings (save Bella) he has had to get away in order to become himself.

Ilyse Robbins plays the least developed of these siblings, the asthmatic Aunt Gert, who wheezes only in her mother's home. (I was asthmatic; what cured it was leaving home.) Neil Simon used her as a plot-device and her affliction as a joke. Robbins turns her into a person.

Everyone here dances around Grandma, revealing the hard realities of her life bit by bit, justifying that harsh personality they cannot live with but must grudgingly love --- and the kids witness the dance. The Soursourian brothers, Jesse and Matthew, learn of Grandma's petty dishonesties, her near omniscience, her rectitude, her apparent selfishness, and they escape by laughing at her --- in her absence, of course.

But Spiro Veloudos is more interested in character revelation than easy laughs. Much of the play glitters with guffaws, but there is a subtle change. Early on the kids set up the entrances of their wacky relatives, so first their comments are funny, and then the people are funny. Then revelations of Grandma's crafty pettiness get hoots of astonishment, and Uncle Louie is indeed a card. Then the rigid Sheila Ferrini and the mushy Sarah Newhouse sit alone with one another in that shabby second-floor apartment in the first year of World War II and quietly face the reality of themselves and each other. And there are laughs after that --- but they are softer, more reflective, almost self-protective laughs that set the seriousness of that scene into sharp relief. I suspect that's because you can't laugh AT people, you have to laugh WITH them. And Veloudos and his company do an excellent job of turning caricatures into people.


"Lost in Yonkers" (till 18 October)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON
1(617)437-7172 1(617)437-7172

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide