“Lost in Yonkers” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ March 28, 2011


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Playwright Neil Simon is often criticized for writing superficial comedies that reach for easy laughs. True for his earlier plays like “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” but not so for his sharply written later plays like “Lost in Yonkers” that Arizona Theatre Company mounts in a masterful production. It features a perfect cast including local native and Broadway star Judy Kaye and two marvelously nuanced performances from local child actor Maxx Carlisle-King and Tucson’s Ryan DeLuca.

In “Yonkers,” a 1991 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, Simon creates an insightful look into how life’s unexpected turns and twists make and influence people. It’s 1942 at a hard-working Jewish family in Yonkers, where the family matriarch escaped German Nazi challenges that crafted a staunch exterior that protects her from life but eliminates any emotion. Her lack of outward love has taken a terrific toll on her four children whom she raised when her husband died. They hate her including widower son Eddie’s two kids, Jay and Arty, her only grandchildren. Mentally handicapped daughter Bella lives with her mother where she’s insulated from things she can’t handle. Gert’s nervous breathing affects her speech, and her other son, Louie, is a gangster.

When Eddie’s wife died, he lost everything caring for her and now he must repay his debts. He begs his mother to take his kids while he’s away but they hate Grandma’s rules, rigidity, and her weapon-like cane.

Grandma teaches them valuable surviving lessons while she hides her love and care behind her blunt, sardonic manner. Simon’s complex narrative probes what made these characters as he uses his comedic skills to deftly lighten his heavy message.

It’s a brilliant play but in the wrong hands it can be dreadfully coy. ATC brings vivid and meaningful life to the characters and situations. Director Samantha K. Wyer’s brisk pacing squeezes maximum laughs from each funny moment but also wrings moving emotion from every touching situation. Kaye commands the action with crusty brusqueness but she lets us see that Grandma’s avoidance of emotion has impacted her. DeLuca and Carlisle-King make Jay and Arty richly drawn and fascinating, qualities necessary to make this play work.

No less perfect is Kate Goehring’s frazzled, flighty, but thoughtful Bella, Spencer Rowe’s gutless but quickly maturing Eddie, Preston Maybank’s rough-tough Louie, and Kerry McCue’s comically touching Gert. The musty set and dowdy costumes add further insights into this family.

“Lost in Yonkers” is a funny but emotionally engaging experience that paints a rich portrait of the ramifications that life and circumstances can have on a family. It continues through April 10. For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A