Updated: Jun 20, 2020
“You think I’m stupid, don’t you, Momma? I’m not a child. If God wanted me to stay a child, why did he make me look like a woman?...”
The scene is an upstairs apartment high above a candy store. It is August 1942, at the height of WWII, and brothers Jay and Arty (aged 15 and 13 respectively) find themselves left — to their understandable horror — with oddball relations in upstate New York. Their mother had recently succumbed to cancer. But during her illness, their milquetoast father, Eddie (Brock Joseph), in desperation, borrowed from predatory loan sharks in order to pay for her health care.
But now, the emotional Eddie (he owes the loan shark nine thousand dollars) has decided his only way out is to leave Jay and Arty (Jude Henderson and Vincent Pernia, both terrific wisecrackers) with his estranged fire-breathing dragon mother and go on the road for eight months to replenish his finances, and hope they don’t get singed. Or shot. Or smothered from Bella’s hugs.
In this, their newest production of Neil Simon's Tony-winning "Lost in Yonkers," playing now at Costa Mesa Playhouse through February 16, we find threatening clouds looming over the Kurnitz family living room… just like the steely, German-Jewish mother and grandmother who rules this roost with an iron fist, acid tongue and swinging cane.
"Dying is easy,” as they say, and “Comedy is hard.” Which is why it is rare that a playwright will attempt a comedy, and if they do, it is even rarer that it will actually work. But, fortunately, with “Lost in Yonkers,” we are in very safe hands. By the time Neil Simon wrote the play, he was already in his golden years, having racked up awards and delighted audiences for over 20 years with plays and films like “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” There was even a theatre named after him on Broadway, an honor usually only bestowed posthumously.
But while Simon is famous for fluffy comedies, the closest this durable funny-sad play comes to being sugar-coated is Kurnitz's Kandy Store, located below the apartment. It's a sweetly ironic business for a family whose matriarch has been permanently soured and hardened — clouded if you will, by circumstances. So when “Lost in Yonkers” premiered to packed houses and rave reviews on Broadway in 1990, spilling over with rarely seen humor and truth, it also won Simon the Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year, the highest accolade any writer in the United States can receive.
Drawing attention to the irascible Grandma Kurnitz (Phyllis M. Nofts), her repute is as a cold, fearsome martinet who has scarred the lives of each of her four living children, and has over time terrorized her son Eddie into a cowering shadow of a man. In fact, Ms. Noft’s volcanic characterization is so charismatic that the specter of the vitriol-spewing, cane-wielding Grandma Kurnitz even haunts scenes in which Grandma is offstage in her room.
But she, too, is wounded, maimed by prejudice, incessant labor and broken dreams. No matter the reason for her domineering ways, she’s no fun to be around; and young Arty and Jay (aka: "Artur" and "Yakob") manage to survive her guardianship only because of their good-hearted spinster Aunt Bella, who acts as a live-in caregiver to her mother, but who is not playing with a full deck — at 35 she's skipping around in pink dresses, ankle socks and saddle shoes. Complicating matters in the newly enlarged household is their tough-talking Uncle Louie — who happens to be a criminal.
To put it bluntly, Eddie’s brother Louie (Angel Correa) is a real pistol, a ne’er do well. Uncle Louie is basically a tough-talking, small-time hood with a trilby hat and wing-tip shoes who’s on the lam from gangster bosses he has antagonized. It’s only a matter of time. And Mr. Correa gives an exceptional scene-stealing performance as the family black sheep. From the moment that Louie darkens Grandma’s door once more with that mysterious black satchel, hell’s-a-poppin’ in chez Kurnitz.
Alexandra Moniz also provides comic relief in her brief appearances as the boy’s high-strung, hyperventilating Aunt Gert, whose chronic case of nerves causes her to swallow the second half of her sentences.
Meanwhile, their mentally impaired Aunt Bella (Jami Bartlett) in a heart-stirring portrayal, adds to the fireworks when her uncharacteristic brazen defiance of her mother threatens to turn the now crowing flat into a war zone. Most agree that this ferocious deep-seeded clash between the tyrannical Grandma Kurnitz and her downtrodden slave of a daughter finds its central core in a darker place than Simon followers are used to.
Director Wendy Ruth, in her directorial debut at Costa Mesa Playhouse, deftly blends the script and this cast, and whips up a delightful comic soufflé, evoking memories of plays from the likes of Clifford Odets or Tennessee Williams. Stage Manager/Sound Designer Mandy Wirt, with assistance from Emily Mankey effectively steers the cast through the 120 minutes of the two acts; Scenic Designer Bradley Kaye vividly recreates the cramped confines of the Kurnitz apartment; Costume Designer Beatrice Vidana Collins dresses the cast in an authentic array of early World War II fashions, circa 1942; and Lighting Designer Caitlyn Guyan skillfully manipulates her instruments to keep the comic focus just where it should be.
The action of the players is above reproach and exemplifies well-trained skills in characterization and walking the delicate fine line between drama and a lighter persona. Ms. Bartlett’s Bella, whose slow mental state is manifested by perpetual excitability and a short attention span, outwardly comes across in a childlike demeanor in a gut wrenching, powerful and inspirational performance. Bella is a heart-breaker every moment, and very often the smartest person in the room.
And Ms. Nofts fully exposes the complex, twisted minefield that is her mother, commonly called Grandma Kurnitz. She is a force of nature, capable of putting the fear of God in anyone, but also a complex woman with shades of gray who appreciates honesty and chutzpah.
Mr. Correa’s portrayal as the bagman Louie is spot-on Runyon-esque, injecting a surge of energy into the evening, and captures that style of humor accurately. Ms. Moniz, playing Aunt Gertrude, is absent from much of the play, but her presence in any scene is a welcome comedy relief and draws laughter every time she starts the gasping breathing problem.
As the boys’ father, Mr. Joseph’s Eddie hides his growing panic at the play’s outset behind a mask of good parenting, and comes out of his mother's bedroom looking like a lion tamer who's lost both his whip and his chair, hurriedly making sure the boys are presentable before Grandma makes her entrance, to devour them all. In spite of the comically pathological situation, however, he and the rest of the family slowly claw their way toward psychological healing.
Finally, the two remarkable future headliners, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Pernia as Jay and Arty, typical teenagers that they are, spend much of their free time ridiculing the dysfunctional behaviors of each of their relatives in amusing bits, and get quite an education in family dynamics during the months that follow. We see the troubles of the financially distressed, socially inept Kurnitz family at their best, and their worst, through the eyes of these two young brothers. Both seem like they were born on stage, utterly smooth and bona fide throughout.
And on that stage, Director Ruth paints a world in which Simon's knack for comedy within the context of hard drama exceeds all expectations, approaching the profound. She directs the play with delicacy and an assured hand, eliciting fine performances from an ideally chosen cast that functions beautifully as a true ensemble. Even during the scenes most fraught with drama, Simon doesn't forget our funny bones. As when Jay tells Arty in the penultimate scene, "I feel sorry for everyone in this family, even Grandma."
Proudly staging quality affordable theater in Orange County for 55 years,“Lost in Yonkers,” is now playing at Costa Mesa Playhouse through February 16th with performances on Fridays and Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with a special included performance date this Thursday, February 6th at 8pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
The Show Report