Clague Playhouse is currently presenting the very solid play “Lost in Yonkers.” It represents Neil Simon as a mature playwright of complex works. That the Clague production is also mature is a huge plus for the audience.
Neil Simon made his big Broadway splash a half-century ago with “The Odd Couple.” In a short time the play became both a movie and a TV series. Twenty years ago, Simon wrote a semiautobiographical trilogy of plays, and “Lost in Yonkers” is arguably the best of them. It is set in Yonkers, suburban New York City, in 1942. Eddie Kurnitz is a widower who needs money from a traveling job to keep his family together. He negotiates with his hardhearted mother to take his two sons for a year while he is gone.
That’s the premise. “Lost in Yonkers” is a hysterically funny show. Unlike “The Odd Couple,” all of the characters of “Lost in Yonkers” are fully drawn human beings, with the complexities that humans have. The show also contains moving insights into the fragile side of human beings. This is not a characteristic of Simon’s early work, which resembled situation comedy of the era. I approach productions of “Lost in Yonkers” with caution because the delicate nature of the show can be destroyed in many ways by well-intentioned but less skilled community theater practitioners.
The play puts a huge responsibility on the actors portraying the two boys. They are essentially alone on stage for the first seven minutes and must establish time, place, character and context. Hooray for Clague! Jake Ingrassia as Jay and Elliot Lockshine as Arty understand the teenage roles and have the skills to pull them off. Both characters are glib and quick with wisecracks. Like most teens, they also know a lot more than they let on to adults. These actors are especially impressive in the unexpressed emotions they feel but don’t overtly express in the later parts of the show.
Meg Parish is Grandma, the cold, apparently unloving matriarch of the family, who ironically owns an ice cream parlor. Parish makes Grandma Kurnitz not a one-note performance, but someone who loves as much as she is able. The product of a tough childhood herself, Grandma does not make easy, in any way, the lives of her children and grandchildren.
“Lost in Yonkers” has its most touching moments in the character of Bella, a dim-witted youngster who is now a grown woman with the needs and feelings of a mature woman. Elaine Feagler, always a good performer, soars in this role. It’s a masterpiece of characterization. Bella has a childish idea of marrying a movie theater usher and opening a restaurant. In Feagler’s Bella, the romance of her infatuation is never pathetic, but deeply moving.
Chris Bizub has the most “cartoonish” role as Uncle Louie, a small-time gangster who is a lot smaller than he thinks he is. Bizub enjoys the character’s brash outside, and makes us in the audience believe he is a real part of this goofy and dysfunctional family. Speaking of goofy, Lisa Margevicius as Gert gets less stage time than anyone else, but manages her role well. Finally, kudos to Jeff Lockshine, who establishes Father Eddie with broad and meaningful strokes as he makes his first five appearances as quick, on-stage updates of the “negotiations” he is having with Grandma about the boys’ future.
Director Tyson Rand has molded a beautiful production around the characters he was given and the performers he chose. He is assisted by Ron Newell’s detailed set. Improvable point? Well, the young actors could be more presentational and forceful in their lines. The mostly Christian Clague audience needs to get used to the mannerisms of the Jewish family, and the young actors swallow a lot of very funny lines. That’s a small quibble in this production, one of the best I have seen at Clague Playhouse in years. “Lost in Yonkers” runs weekends through March 30.