Jos Slovick as Jay & Keith Ramsay as Arty

Lost In Yonkers

21st September 2012

Lost In Yonkers at Watford Palace Theatre

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Once described, by Frank Rich in the New York Times, as Neil Simon’s ‘most honest play’, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost In Yonkers is now rarely performed, but is the choice of Watford Palace Theatre as this year’s autumn season opener.

And what a choice. What a good choice. Scripted in 1991, set in 1942, it’s as fresh and funny a piece of writing as you could wish for, but with masses of emotional depth. If you like your theatre heart-breakingly amusing and side-splittingly sad (and yes, I’ve deliberately mixed and matched those adverbs) then this is the piece, and the production, for you.

Behind it is a triumvirate – director Derek Bond, designer James Perkins and lighting designer Sally Ferguson – who have been working together for six years; they’re the team responsible for the recent acclaimed five-star London musical Floyd Collins, and their shared creative vision confers coherence on the overall presentation. There is both a stillness and a state of flux at the heart of Lost In Yonkers, and the ability to balance the two is much to be admired. The pace overall is perhaps a little slow, but the gentle unfolding of the story behind the story requires a delicacy of touch that Derek Bond manages well.

It’s summer 1942 and life has turned upside down for teenage brothers Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Their mother has recently died, and their father, burdened with debt by the hospital bills, heads out on the road as a salesman, leaving them with their German-born grandmother – from whom they are all but estranged – in an apartment above her Yonkers candy store. It promises to be a hard year, with just a little light relief from the loving presence of Aunt Bella and the mysterious comings-and-goings of small-time criminal Uncle Louie.

This is a household for whom the term ‘dysfunctional’ could have been invented. ‘I’m not afraid to tell the truth,’ says Grandma – but there are truths and truths, and navigating their way through them is a complex challenge for the entire family.

Aunt Bella’s ditzy girlish flightiness is irritating at first, but as evidence of her fragility and her mental disability is revealed, compassion is aroused. Bella’s personal development is a key theme of the play. Laura Howard gets the balance of her child/ adult sides just right, and delivers a powerful, moving and mature performance; real growth for the character and an emotional journey for the audience as well.

Jonathan Tafler as Eddie (‘Pop’ to Jay and Arty – or Jakob and Artur, as their grandmother would have it) has a difficult role, with little more to do than top and tail the action, and provide voice-overs in the form of his letters between scenes; I found him warm, but less convincing than his sons. Grandma, too, is something of a caricature, but it is her harshness around which the plot revolves, and it’s almost impossible to believe in her cruelty. Bernice Stegers does well to keep that edge of steel.

Both boys, excellent as they are (Jos Slovick in particular, with Keith Ramsay in his first professional role providing superb support) are really too old for the parts, but they do bring subtlety and excellent timing for both comic and poignant lines.

There is change at the heart of the Kurnitz family by the end of Lost In Yonkers, albeit no schmaltzy resolution. As for the answers to the obvious questions – who is lost, and will anyone be found? – you’ll have to work that out for yourself…

Continues until 6 October

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