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Lost in Yonkers — Bristol Riverside Theatre

untitled (142)In a true yarn that becomes a family joke, one grandson tells another his uncle’s story about how a horse fell on Grandma Kurnitz seventy years ago causing nagging lifelong pain, and the woman has not taken an aspirin yet.

In another one-liner, Neil Simon has the same grandson, in anger, say he’s going to sneak into Grandma’s room one night, cut off her long braid of hair and use it for barbed wire.

Grandma Kurnitz stories abound, and some are curdling while others are funny in retrospect in Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” receiving an affecting production directed by Keith Baker at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

Grandma is a comic figure, but any laughs she gets derive from reactions to her rigid sternness and her knack for giving sharp or sarcastic responses. Her hearing is good, too. Two scenes after Artie, the grandson, talks about lopping her hair, Grandma tells him what lies in store for him if her tries.

Comedy ends when you realize how formidable Grandma is and the toll her hardness has taken on her four surviving children, none of whom seems able to lead a conventional life. Grandma never cracks a smile, seems perpetually angry, and speaks only to admonish or denigrate. She is scrupulously honest and has no compunctions about hurting feelings or humiliating a person in front of others. Her credo leaves love, any kind of love, on a distant burner and centers on survival. She is tough to make her children tough, so they will “live at all costs.”

Only one of the Kurnitz children, Louie, is truly tough, and he is a gangster, the bagman for a loan shark and perhaps a lone shark himself. Eddie has the existence we’d recognize as the most normal. He was married and, now widowed, has two children, but is in constant need of a job, the crux of “Lost in Yonkers.” Gertrude manages on her own, but she’s never married and has an unusual speech impediment that causes her to inhale as she finishes sentences.  Her brothers say it’s from holding her breath in fear of their mother. Bella is the most special case. Although family lore says Bella is addled mentally because Grandma hit her on the head too many times with her cane, the fact is Bella had scarlet fever in her infancy, and the effect was to render her a perpetual child. At age 35, she may have the appearance and desires of an adult, but she has the brain of a grade schooler and has trouble keeping track of things, such as where she lives, what she is attempting to say, and anything that involves close concentration.

“Lost in Yonkers” is deceptive in its way. Set in 1942, it  begins and proceeds as if it’s going to be a look at a distinctively peculiar family as seen by two boys who have been sheltered from their paternal relatives but who are set for intense exposure as their father, Eddie, must prevail upon their grandmother to mind them for 10 months while he goes on the road for a sales job.

This favor from his mother means everything to Eddie. He spent all his money and borrowed from loan sharks other than Louie to pay his late wife’s medical expenses. He owes $9,000 he can’t pay unless he takes a job that involves traveling throughout the U.S. for almost a year.

Eddie says he’s lucky to have the work. He has been unemployed, but because of World War II, he can have a job selling scrap metal as long as he can find someone to take care of his sons. His mother is his last resort, but Eddie swallows his pride and reservations about entrusting his boys to her and asks.

It appears that “Lost in Yonkers” is going to be a comedy about the boys, Jay, 15, and Artie, 13, getting through that year.

But Simon surprises. As “Lost in Yonkers” unfolds as a glimpse at a loopy family, Bella, the mentally challenged sister, emerges to take center stage from her nephews and mother.

Bella may have the reasoning of a child, but she has the emotions of an adult. Grandma Kurnitz may have banned love from her house, but Bella longs for it. At 35, she wants romance. More than that, she wants a husband, a home, and children of her own. The prospect of minding Jay and Artie thrills Bella because she’ll have companionship but she’ll also get to be a surrogate mother.

Looking after Jay and Artie is not enough for Bella. She wants babies so she can have someone to whom she can give all the affection that wells inside her. She also longs for affection in return.

So, Bella starts “Lost in Yonkers” as the most endearing but most out-of-touch of the Kurnitzes, the eccentric aunt who draws laughs by misunderstanding situations, forgetting what she’s saying in midstream, being overly enthusiastic, passing her front door when she’s on her way home, and having what seems like mild fantasies about a home and family.

As “Lost in Yonkers” develops, Bella becomes more and more the focal character. The boys and their grandmother react to her lead. Bella’s fantasies are not mild. They’re deep desires that she fills she must fulfill if she doesn’t want to have a life of empty unhappiness.

Bella’s needs lead to poignant and moving scenes. She grabs the stage with her pleas for support and understanding. Baker’s production in Bristol ambles along entertainingly while Simon is getting the audience acquainted with Louie, Eddie, Grandma, and the boys, but it galvanizes and becomes riveting when Bella takes and keeps center stage. Baker has been deft in leading up to Bella’s major scenes. He has taken his time and let the real drama in “Lost in Yonkers” come from a woman who is going to burst from loneliness and frustration if she doesn’t make a move and talk to her family about what she wants and how she plans to get it. The director aids Simon by making sure “Lost in Yonkers” sustains some texture and amiability until its more intense and pointed sequences arrive. He keeps the boys curious and animated, and he gets total support from his cast, particularly David Nate Goldman, Bruce Graham, and Danny Vaccaro, as he builds to the moment of Bella’s great announcement. About the only glitch along comes right before Bella’s defining moment when she and Louie have a realistic but annoying tiff about who will sit where as Bella speaks. This is one time you want Grandma to brandish her cane, say “Everyone, sit!,” and command order.

Once Bella speaks, “Lost in Yonkers” graduates from a pleasant and amusing slice-of-unconventional-life to a play of substance and depth. Eleanor Handley, as Bella, contributes greatly to this transformation. Adept and believable all along, Handley steps into the spotlight bravely and uses her time there touchingly as she honestly expresses the emotional deprivation Bella has felt and her longing to fulfill dreams and intentions that are festering in her.

Bella’s revelations are not a sudden outburst. She has planned what she was going to say and set up the Kurnitz living room, positioning the people in it, to be placed exactly as she envisioned her speech in a dream.

Bella has already confided her plans to Jay and Artie, so we know the details of what she will say to her mother and siblings, but she has not expressed the yearning or the void that is part of her waking existence on an intense level. It is Bella’s clearly-spoken angst that moves us, her talk of the vacancy in her heart and how difficult it is for her to love, and want love, so much and never have an outlet for it in either direction.

Bella talks about getting married, much to her mother’s horror and her brother’s cautionary dismay. She delineates plans everyone in the theater but Bella knows are not tenable, but her confidence that they are, and her beseeching cry that her longings must be met, touch our hearts. We feel for Bella as we would for any wounded creature who will survive but never fully be healed. That Bella is questioned by Louie and is heard by her mother barely containing her anger and fear makes the scene even more moving. Baker is, blessedly, a director who likes to give scenes a chance to breathe and who times moments for optimum honest effect. When Bella ends her appeal, and her mother turns her back and leaves the room while Louie is in a dither of his own, she distraughtly asks for someone to hug her. The emotionally vacant Kurnitzes do not move, not even Jay, who is old enough to react but too young to know what he should do in an awkward situation that may trigger disapproval from his grandmother. Finally, after what seems an eternity (but is really 40  seconds), Gertrude, still unsure and hesitant, stands and gives her sister the comfort she needs, tentative though her embrace is.

Bella will remain the focal figure in Simon’s piece from then on. She will have one more poignant scene with her mother, and we will have seen how Simon and Baker move “Lost in Yonkers” from a general look at humanity as experienced by two young boys to a searing probe into the human heart as expressed by a character who couldn’t know better to hold back the depth of her feeling.

Baker’s production is solid. Even in the beginning of “Lost in Yonkers,” when Simon is riding on one-liners, the  cuteness of the boys, and the general eccentricity of the Kurnitzes, he keeps matters authentic by letting the boys be boys, but not too wild, and  by finding the genuine core in each of the characters, so they became realistic beings and not just a collection of people with strange traits and lifestyles. Baker makes sure Simon’s play entertains when it is a gentle view of a group so that it could command your attention when it turns into something more.

Eleanor Handley, dressed in bobby socks, saddle shoes, and the light dresses of the early 1940s, impresses upon entrance. Bella is so excited to see her nephews, Handley shows us how effusive she can be and how she doesn’t know what to do first to entertain or delight her guests. A four-dip cone from the family candy store, below the Kurnitz apartment, is one idea, but Bella soon remembers her mother gets angry when she gives customers more ice cream than allows for a profit.

Handley also has mannerisms that experience tells us fit Bella’s condition. She rubs her hands and moves them in a fluttery way that shows either her joy at seeing Artie and Jay or her anxiety at being scolded by her mother, sometimes in front of the boys. She also affects a facial tic that seems consistent with her character.

Handley is all affection and innocence as Bella. You feel sorry for her when her mother yells at her or calls her inept. You know the boys see all of their aunt’s deficiencies but find them as endearing as they do comical.

Handley makes it clear Bella only wants to be good to everyone. The boys are a particular blessing to her because they serve as friends she never had, and she can lavish attention on them as their aunt. You root for Bella while being anxious in her behalf. She is not so much fragile as childlike, but you are aware she can be hurt easily and can be tipped off a dangerous edge if a situation becomes too complicated for her to comprehend or take at face value.

The warmth Handley conveys leads to the longing Bella feels. The actress is wonderful in her big scenes. She plays Bella’s various emotions, from unstrung to rationally precise, with a virtuoso’s skill and elicits a sympathetic response you can feel radiating through the audience.

Joy Franz holds her character’s hard line as Grandma Kurnitz. She may sneer, she may attack, she may carp, but she never smiles or expresses joy. Her grandchildren, almost strangers because of her alienation of their mother, do  not interest her. She sees them as trouble and a burden to her old age. There’s no maternal affection. Franz’s Grandma cannot even be won over but the boys standing for her, all scrubbed and in their best suits. To her, they are creatures asking for love, or some regard, but worthy of nothing but refusal. Bella actually intervenes to secure the boys a home while their father pursues his fortunate opportunity.

Franz’s Grandma enjoys her own jokes and the way she metes out discipline. Although she never smiles, Franz expresses satisfaction when she’s best one of her children or the boys in a matter of logic or of sheer power. This doesn’t so much humanize Grandma as much as it shows she can take delight in something, even if it’s her own harshness.

Franz, through Grandma’s stern mask, is able to give clues to the woman’s inner character. You can see how intently Grandma Kurnitz listens and see glimpses of reaction, especially when someone is talking about something she thinks is romantic or foolish or meant to bamboozle her. She becomes rigid and gives her eyes a wary expression when Bella reveals her plans for marriage and life with a man she met at the movies. There’s life behind Franz’s Grandma even though the woman would be too proud and too cautious to show it to anyone but the audience. Franz is also affecting when you realize what motivated Grandma’s steeliness and why she clings to her “live at any cost” philosophy.

Bruce Graham is just a good and natural actor, you half hope he will surrender some writing time to perform more. (Remember I said “half hope, Bruce. I want to see how you develop “Funnyman” and “White Man on the Bus.”) Graham brings heart, urgency, and a core of reality to the earliest scenes in Baker’s production. His earnestness works on you so you hope as fervently as he does that his mother will consent to take care of his sons.

Graham is so realistic, he embodies Eddie. You hear Simon providing cracks and exposition, but when Graham comes on stage, business is serious, a matter of ease or hardship, and you are sympathetic to Eddie, his recent bereavement, and his chance to save his and his sons’ future.

David Nate Goldman often carries the production as Jay, the older brother who his grandmother calls “Jacob,” pronounced “Yah-kob”) because she doesn’t like nicknames. Goldman has a lot of poise and stage presence. He can convey boyhood while also letting you see a young man on the brink of adulthood.

Goldman’s confrontations with Franz and with Danny Vaccaro, as his uncle Louie, show his character’s passion and a fearlessness his grandmother might admire if his complaints weren’t aimed at her. This is a seasoned performance that never hits a wrong or false note.

Kyle Klein II is more actory as Artie, the younger brother and the more mischievous of the two. Klein has a way with a one-liner and sells all of Simon’s gags. He is also more excitable than his brother and can’t wait to share news, such as the story about the grandmother’s constant pain and her refusal to take aspirin.

Klein plays the brother  more inclined to show his grandmother he is as tough as she is and can take all she dishes out. He demonstrates this literally when he’s given some foul-tasting German mustard soup to cure a cold and fever. When Jay is looking, Artie doesn’t touch it. When Grandma tells him he’s going to eat if it she has to hold his mouth open and pour it down his throat, he gobbles it up, saying, “See if can eat your stupid soup,” while she watches victoriously and contentedly.

Danny Vaccaro has had a good 2014 at Bristol Riverside and continues his success there with a nuanced performance as Louie, the mobster who has to lay low at this mother’s in Yonkers while hoods from the Bronx are looking for him.

Danny has the kind of class high-stakes gamblers have in movies. Everything about him is neat, compact, and smooth. He has nerves as steeled as his mother’s, and he has a few things to teach his nephews about the real world and about coping with their grandmother.

In spite of his dishonest profession, Louie is the child who absorbed his mother’s toughness the most. He is unsentimental, but that doesn’t stop him from being friendly and avuncular to Eddie’s boys.

It is through Louie we learn most of the Kurnitz family history. His role is to add some juice to the middle portion between the boys’ arrival and Bella’s revelation, and Vaccaro fills it with aplomb.

Karen Peakes may have the smallest and least important part as Gertrude, but she plays it beautifully. Peakes appears to hold a solid line between being the Kurnitz child that escaped to relative normality and a woman who is nervous as a cat around her relatives.

Peakes lets you see the pain in Gert’s face, but she also registers as a woman who dresses well and takes care of herself beyond her mother’s reach. Though unmarried, she has her own home, one to which Bella retreats when life becomes unbearable with her mother, and appeared to be content. Peakes is good at playing Gert’s unusual speech problem which has her talking normally at the beginning of a sentence and choking on her words by the end. In an aside to the boys, she admits the tic is only a nuisance when she is in her mother’s presence.

Peakes adds to the pathos when Gert is hesitant to rile her mother by comforting Bella. Her timing and expressions of doubt and confusion are perfect.

Jason Simms must have visited an old-world grandmother with a taste for heavy wooden pieces, lushly upholstered furniture, and doilies or antimacassars on chair backs and arms. The Kurnitz living room is that perfect is appearance and appointment. Grandma Kurnitz may be as hard as steel, but her home is cozy and neat.

Linda B. Stockton did well dressing both Bella and Gertrude in bobby sox and period dresses. Everyone looked authentically clothed and shod.

Bradlee Ward’s sound design cannily picks up street noise when the boys open windows. Kate Ashton’s light design adds to some of the surprises and tension in “Lost in Yonkers.”

“Lost in Yonkers” runs through Sunday, November 30 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Thanksgiving, Nov. 27. Tickets range from $46 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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