THE BASICS: LOST IN YONKERS, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize AND Tony Award winning play by Neil Simon, presented by Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, directed by Lisa Ludwig, runs through September 29, on Thursdays and Saturdays have dinner at 6, with show at 7:30; Sundays have dinner at 1, with show at 2:30, at Bobby J’s Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga (395-3207). www.mybobbyjs.com Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: As the play opens, hapless widowed father Eddie is financially strapped, but, with the war on, he can make a lot of money quickly taking to the road as a salesman in the scrap metal business. So, he deposits his two sons, both in their early teens, with his mother, the very stern, very German, Grandma Kurnitz who lives over a candy and ice cream store which she runs with her mentally challenged daughter Bella. The boys are left to contend with Grandma, with Bella and her secret romance, and with their Uncle Louie, a small-time hoodlum. It’s a “coming of age” play for the two boys, but it’s also a time for all of Grandma’s children to grow up a little, and maybe for Grandma too.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Neil Simon’s plays are not particularly plot driven. And they are not particularly “dramatic,” with well delineated, incorrigible “bad guys” and action that presses on inexorably to the bitter end. That old rule of writing “if a gun appears on stage in Act I, it damn well better go off by Act III” doesn’t apply at all. In fact, Uncle Louie’s gun actually does appear in Act I but it never goes off at all. That’s not a loose thread. It’s a statement about Louie, who is not a bad guy after all.
So what’s it about? Simon’s plays are all about ordinary people and relationships, populated with characters to whom we can relate. We may not take to them immediately, but by the end we understand them and care about them. To illustrate, just think of two of his most memorable characters from THE ODD COUPLE: “Felix” the prissy uptight neatnick and “Oscar” the easy going “everyman’s slob.” However you may feel about them at the beginning, by the end of the play you understand both of them.
Simon’s early career as a gag writer for television helps him move things along.
So if it’s not plot driven, neither does he have people sit around chewing the scenery. Simon’s early career as a gag writer for television helps him move things along. And, in the end, we really do want to care about everybody on stage and Simon lets us do that. Nobody is unredeemable. And that’s one reason why he is one of the greatest American playwrights, with more Tony Awards than any other writer, and a legacy of over 30 plays, the titles of most of which are household names. Simon understands the bright promise of tomorrow.
Even though Shakespeare in Delaware Park is running with LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST concurrently (through August 18), their Executive Director, Lisa Ludwig, graciously offered to direct this play for Jay Desiderio. As an actress, Ludwig often goes for “larger than life” and plays to the seats in the back of the theater. As director she does the same. Ludwig got big performances out of her actors. And what a cast.
Ludwig got big performances out of her actors. And what a cast.
First off, Buffalo theater treasure Ellen Horst is formidable as the strict, old-school German, Grandma Kurtnitz who fully subscribes to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and boy, to hear the characters on stage tell it, she wanted her children to be strong! She doesn’t make an immediate appearance in this play; her reputation precedes her, and when she finally does walk out on stage, cane in hand, you could sense the entire audience, even though we were all seated, step back. Of course, the actress herself is a wonderful person, kind, and caring, but she’s also an old pro, with an international career including film and television, and if the role is to project scary, then Ellen Horst is scaaaaa-reeee!
Her dramatic nemesis is her mentally challenged daughter, Bella, sister of Eddie and Louie and Gert, who lives at home, works in the candy shop, takes care of Grandma, and puts up with a string of abuse that may have included blows to the head with the cane when Bella was a girl. Bella was played by Diane DiBernardo, who, like Ellen Horst, can do it all, but has recently been seen on stage playing sophisticated ladies. So, when I saw her on stage as the emotional, giddy, and goofy Bella I admit to checking my program several times thinking “Is that REALLY Diane?”
Neil Simon the playwright himself was the younger of two brothers whose parents had an explosive on-again-off-again relationship and the boys were often farmed out to live with relatives. Siblings are a constant theme with Simon’s plays, starting with his first hit, 1961’s COME BLOW YOUR HORN and here in 1991’s hit LOST IN YONKERS we have 15-year-old Jay played by Ayden Herreid and 13-“and a half!”-year-old Arty played by Timothy Whipple. Of course, the younger brother gets the best laugh lines. For years I really didn’t enjoy watching children on stage, so I’m either getting soft in my old age or child actors these days are getting pretty damned good. I suspect it’s the latter. Not only do Herreid and Whipple deliver on their lines, but they maintain a consistent separation of personality throughout.
For years I really didn’t enjoy watching children on stage, so I’m either getting soft in my old age or child actors these days are getting pretty damned good.
Kevin Nagel is believable as the nervous father, Eddie. Kelly Cammarata doesn’t have a lot of lines as the nervous Aunt Gert, but has to deliver them while exhaling and then while inhaling. On the way home I tried that, speaking out while breathing in. I can’t do it at all. Kudos Cammarata! And the low-level hoodlum, Uncle Louis, is played so wonderfully by Eliot Fox, who sums up all of the big themes of the play: the desire to escape his childhood and to “make it” in the New World which requires leaving home but not losing touch with family. His scenes with his nephews are particularly poignant.
As to the title. I looked up Yonkers. It’s not part of the five boroughs of New York. It’s the first community just north of the city, in Westchester County, much more affluent than The Bronx to the south, and, here’s a surprise, Yonkers is now the fourth largest city in the Empire State, after NYC, Buffalo, and Rochester. Of course, to German immigrants, such as Grandma, most likely anything in the U.S. would have held a bright promise, but to second generations and others, including Neil Simon’s family which lived in Washington Heights, Yonkers would have been a step up and away from the teeming city. As far as “lost” I believe that comes from the fact that everybody in this play feels, at some point, lost. And they all feel that they’ve lost something, but that, somehow, they can get it all back.
WHAT’S NEXT: COLUMBO (Prescription Murder) by William Link and Richard Levinson. This is the play that inspired the television series which starred Peter Falk (not the other way around)! Directed by Jay Desiderio, it will run October 13 thru December 15, 2019 and will feature Jack Hunter (recently seen as Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON at the Irish Classical Theatre) as “Columbo” and Dave Marciniak (recently seen as “Prospero” in THE TEMPEST at Shakespeare in Delaware Park) as “Dr.Roy Flemming.”
Lead image courtesy Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!