9/23/2022        LOST IN YONKERS                       Act 3 Productions

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF STEEL

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Robert Harling’s popular 1987 Steel Magnolias popularized the archetype of the woman facing trial and adversity with grit and humor and determination, that metaphorical “Heart of Steel” that will help you survive heartbreak and pain and family trial. But what happens if that “Steel Heart” remains in place after the trial is over, after the heartache has dulled to a dark memory?

 

In a nutshell, it’s not easy to hug steel, which, to do its job, must be cold and unyielding.  Try hugging a razor blade!

 

Meet Grandma Kurnitz, a refugee from Nazi German, the widowed owner of a Yonkers Candy and Soda Emporium.  It is 1942, and the war effort has galvanized America.   Into her pristine apartment (above the candy shop) drop her two grandsons, Jay and Arty.  Their father Eddie must take a:travelling salesman job to pay off the medical debts of their late mother.   

 

Eddie is essentially estranged from his mother, as are his siblings, Bella, Gert, and Louie, and it’s easy to see why.  Grandma is strict, harsh, unloving, and pretty durn mean, and her adult offspring are all “off” in one way or another.  Eddie is indecisive and weak.  Louie is a thief hiding from the mob.  Gert is paralyzed with fear around her mother, ending each sentence with an inhale rather than an exhale.   And Bella, Bella is a thirty-five-year-old force of nature, a breath of delight and good will lighting up the apartment.  She probably has a mental handicap and was diagnosed as an “adult child” and can be forgetful and naïve and impulsive.  She is also so filled with love for her siblings and her nephews that Grandma seems even colder in contrast.).

Such is the set-up of Neil Simon’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Lost in Yonkers, first on Broadway in 1991, winning Tony’s for Irene Worth (Grandma) and Mercedes Ruhl (Bella)**, who repeated those roles in the 1993 movie adaptation (which I strongly recommend you find and stream).  Although rarely performed, this play is Neil Simon at his best, finding humor in darkness and darkness in the closest of families (which, of course, this is not).

 

Act 3 Production’s staging is a dynamic, energetic, and compelling piece of theater, a sly family comedy that sneaks up with its emotional wallops and is centered by two extraordinary performances -- Kitt Marsh as Grandma and Marianna Schuck as Bella.  Ms. Marsh is not afraid to show Grandma’s razor-sharp edges, but she is also able to show her more vulnerable side, the pains protected by her steeliness. When Bella says her late siblings (who died as children) “were the lucky ones,” the tapestry of sorrow and anger that crosses Grandma’s face (for only a second, granted) tells us all we need to know about her, makes us even forgive her excessive cruelty (a bit).

 

And Ms. Schuck dominates the play from her first entrance, a fireball of energy and innocence (that’s not completely innocent as we eventually learn) that ignites the stage.   Bella is a brilliant Simon character, completely “in the moment” with little recall of what happened five seconds ago, let alone five days or even years ago.  She has an off-stage romance blooming with a movie theatre usher, that seems, on paper, like a perfect match, until you stop to consider the logistics of such a relationship.  ‘

 

The supporting performances naturally fade a bit in comparison, though I daresay they’ll improve as the run continues.  The young actors playing Jay and Arty (“Jakob and Artur” to their Grandma) occasionally let their New Yawk accents get in the way of diction and clarity, and Aunt Gert’s odd speech impediment is grating and distracting (truth to tell, I found the movie Gert equally hard-to-listen-to).

 

Still and all, everyone has moments to shine and all make the most of those moments.

 

This is admittedly not the one-line-fest Simon’s earlier work has us expect, though there are some decent jokes and the characters have moments where that wit shines and flourishes.  Even Grandma has some wry observations that would soften her in the eyes of her grandsons if she’d actually smile (which, thankfully, Ms. Marsh does not do).  But the play’s climax is a breathtakingly moving scene, made more so by the performances, especially coming on the heels of a particularly funny scene involving a chair and a lot of frustration.   It is a brilliantly conceived and written sequence made even more so by the performances of the entire cast.

 

The new Act 3 Artistic Director, Zachary Stutts, directed this piece as well as designed the simple but effective apartment set, and, based on his work here, I have high hopes for the rest of their season.  Friday‘s opening was criminally under-attended, and I really hope word gets out for this.

 

Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers is probably his best play, the only one to win the Tony, the Pulitzer and the Drama Desk Award.  And Act 3 Productions is returning from its COVID-induced hiatus with a production as good as anything they’ve done before, with two actors giving performances that may (just may) make my list of the best of the year.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com    #Act3Productions    #LostInYonkers)

 

** Kevin Spacey also won a Tony for his performance as Louie, but it’s not a good idea to talk about him these days.  Besides, the role in the movie was taken over by Richard Dreyfuss, so, well ….