Friday, January 15, 2010

Lost in Yonkers, Cleveland Play House

(Rosemary Prinz as grandma.)

No matter how warm and cuddly a grandma is with her grandkids, there’s always a little bit of fear attached for the little ones. After all, from a child’s perspective, grandparents tend to be rather badly wrinkled and often use strange expressions like “darn tootin’.”

In Lost in Yonkers, now at the Cleveland Play House, playwright Neil Simon confronts two teenage brothers with the Grandma from Hell. But it’s the clashes between granny and her grown daughter Bella that truly resonate in this often comical drama.

The boys, Jay and his younger brother Arty, have been installed in Grandma Kurnitz’s home by their dad Eddie (a rather bland John Plumpis), so he can travel and make some money. The time is mid-World War Two and, since their mom recently passed away, there’s no one left to care for them. But the boys are terrified of the old lady, having heard many stories about her fearsome swinging cane.

The other occupant of the home is Eddie’s sister Bella, a slightly mentally challenged woman in her 30s who has a warm heart but an often tenuous grasp on reality. There are two other grown siblings in the family: tough Louie (nicely rendered by Anthony Crane), who runs with gangsters, and gasping Gert (Patricia Buckley), who apparently held her breath so much as a child, in fear of her mother, that she now has a chronic breathing problem.

This character landscape offers Simon plenty of comic potential, and he mines it as only he can. But while it is true that many people use humor to deal with difficult situations, the two boys in Yonkers often come off as mini-Jerry Seinfelds, always ready with a tightly polished quip. Still, it must be said that Alex Wyse as Jay and Maxwell Beer as Arty handle these lines with professional aplomb.

While the boys’ brief run-ins with Grandma are used mostly for yucks, it is Bella’s relationship with her mother that gives the play the heft it yearns for. Having been squashed under her mother’s unrelenting gaze for her whole life, Bella is struggling to break free and live her life, even within the constraints of her mental handicap.

Sara Surrey is excellent as the slightly off-center Bella, generating plenty of laughs with her non-sequiturs and other verbal gaffes. But when she actually locks horns with mom in Act Two, Surrey tends to float a bit too much above the history of hurt that she is trying to overcome.

In the linchpin role of Grandma, Rosemary Prinz is a bony little knuckle of a woman, reflexively turning away from any kisses or affection from her family and handing out only harshness and unfair punishments. As Grandma gradually mellows, just a bit, Prinz maintains a tight hold on her character, keeping her credible (against some tough challenges posed by the sentimentally-inclined Simon) right up to the final curtain.

This co-production, with two other theaters, is directed with skill and a light touch by Michael Bloom, and benefits from a gorgeous period set, designed by Michael Schweikhardt, that feels lifted straight from memory—as it should.

All in all, Lost in Yonkers is an engrossing and enjoyable evening even though, due to an excess of predictable plot turns, it probably won’t linger in your mind very long afterwards

Lost in Yonkers

Through January 31 at the Cleveland Play House,

8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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