by Neil Simon
Directed by Jenn Thompson
A Procuction of TACT
Theatre Row on 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

TACT's revival of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers marks two firsts: the first NYC revival of a Simon play in the context of classic American drama -- and by a company specializing in classic revivals at that. The second -- arguable, I suppose -- is what may be TACT's first real breakout production. I don't remotely mean to imply that TACT hasn't had acclaim and renown and established itself as a company of significance, but with rare and modest exception, I've experienced their productions as respectable and a little academic; mounted with a kind of no-frills accuracy but little in the way of real, invigorating juice. With Lost in Yonkers, though, director Jenn Thompson, a recent addition to the TACT family, is squeezing the fruit of the play for all it's worth.

                        Here’s a borrowed, slightly modified Wikipedia reduction I’ve used before, with cast names interpolated:  

                        Lost in Yonkers set in 1942, is a coming of age tale that focuses on brothers Arty (Russell Posner) and Jay (Matthew Gumley), left in the care of their Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris) and Aunt Bella (Finnerty Steeves) in Yonkers, New York, because their desperate father, Eddie (Dominic Comperatore), has to work as a traveling salesman to pay off loan shark debts incurred following the death of his wife after a long illness. Grandma is a severe, frightfully intimidating immigrant who terrified her children as they were growing up, damaging each of them to varying degrees. Bella is a sweet but mentally slow and highly excitable woman who longs to marry an usher at the local movie house so she can escape the oppressive household and create a life and family of her own. Her brother Louie (Alec Beard) is a small-time, tough-talking hoodlum who is on the run, while her sister Gert  (Stephanie Cozart) suffers from a breathing problem with causes more psychological than physical problems. Missing much of the sentimentality of the plays comprising Simon's earlier Eugene trilogy, Lost in Yonkers climaxes with a dramatic confrontation between embittered mother and lonely daughter that permanently and surprisingly alters the dynamic of this eccentrically dysfunctional family.                  

                        Ms. Thompson’s cast is generally excellent (the kids are unusually savvy and natural comedians for their age) but I have two small…I won’t even call them caveats, but rather, points that drew my attention outside of the play. The first is Alec Beard’s portrayal of shady uncle Louie. It’s an attractively comic performance, with the appropriately soft hint of menace and danger-magnet under the surface; but Mr. Beard (complicit, I suppose, with Ms. Thompson) has let it fall just a tad too conspicuously into the modeled on Cagney and Bogart trope. What’s unclear is whether we’re watching the actor’s idea of what Louie is organically or if he sees Louie as a guy who re-invented himself along the lines of certain cultural icons. In any event it’s a little bit of distracting artificiality in an otherwise well-modulated performance. And then there’s Ms. Steeves as the mentally challenged Aunt Bella. She struck me as just a little too old for the woman-child, especially given Bella’s desire to have her own children. (I did a little web browsing and found Ms. Steeves’ age—not to be revealed here—and in fact, one could argue that she’s just on the cusp of too old, not there yet; and that giving Bella just that much more time on the personal calendar is a perfectly legitimate way for director and actress to add to the character’s sense of loneliness and desperation.) But I may know the play too well. She gives a decent, sensitive performance, and I wonder how it might land with those seeing Lost in Yonkers for the first time.

                        Which, if you never have, I urge you to do. I can’t think of a better way to make its acquaintance. Veterans of the Simon ouvre are also not discouraged…

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