We gave it an A-
There’s nothing quite like the gentle thrill of reencountering something from the past — a scrapbooked keepsake, an old toy or a favorite song — and finding that time hasn’t chipped away at its charm. Neil Simon’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning dramedy Lost in Yonkers, which sketches a tragicomic portrait of a Jewish German-American family during WWII, hasn’t been on a New York stage in nearly 20 years. But a new Off Broadway revival at the Beckett Theatre (through April 14) finds all its parts in fine working order. The expert pacing, the vivid characters, the melancholy thrum beneath Simon’s zippy one-liners — all feel good as new in the care of a uniformly wonderful cast under the direction of Jenn Thompson.
Perhaps that’s because Yonkers was already a something of a memento when it was first produced, a nostalgic ode to a Golden Age that seemed, if not exactly happier, at least less clouded with the irony and cynicism of modern times. The story begins as smart-mouthed teenagers Jay (Matthew Gumley) and Arty (Russell Posner) are sent to live with their grandmother (Cynthia Harris) and aunt Bella (Finnerty Steeves) when their widower father (Dominic Comperatore) takes a 10-month job as a traveling salesman during the war. There’s nothing very unusual in the premise — but there is in the family. Grandma is a battleax with a limp and all-too-vivid memories of how she got it back in Berlin, where she grew up before immigrating to America. Bella is a child in a 35-year-old woman’s body, airheaded and sweet but frustrated by the limits of her own mind. And Bella’s other two grown siblings — gangster Louie (Alec Beard) and sickly Gert (Stephanie Cozart) — were both irreparably damaged by their mother’s draconian parenting. ”Live at any cost, I taught you,” she reminds her children, as though the streets of Yonkers were as deadly as the beaches of Normandy. As the kids’ story line cedes the stage to the central conflict between Bella and her mother, who need each other more than either will admit, the play becomes darker, richer, and surprisingly bleak.
Through it all, Simon’s writing rings as clearly as ever — his gift for fluid dialogue and effortless structuring hasn’t staled. And this production knows it. Thompson stages the play on an understated set, with only a few pieces of furniture and a strip of sky above. The actors play their characters with strength and straightforwardness, never trying to upstage their own lines. Gumley and Posner bring pitch-perfect outer-borough attitude to their parts, while Beard finds a scene-stealing mix of comedy and menace in his tough-guy role. Steeves and Harris perform the remarkable feat of uncovering a family resemblance between two characters — the naïve daughter and the world-weary mother — who at first seem to have nothing in common. Their expertise is put to the test in a few of the play’s pat moments, when Simon seems to swerve away from tragedy into the safety of heartwarming humor. Ultimately, the show doesn’t challenge, it comforts. And that might be the key to its agelessness: It’s now an heirloom, ready to bring a moment of happiness today and then be set aside for another 20 years. A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)