Lost in Yonkers

by William Gibson
February 10 - March 18, 2012


New theater company finds the truth in 'Lost in Yonkers'
November 14, 2011 - Capital Gazette

The new Compass Rose Theater, now ensconced in a storefront at Eastport Shopping Center, has been set up in part to let young acting students work with adult professionals.

From that standpoint, its first production, a proficient rendition of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," is a logical choice. Most of the play's action is seen from the point of view of two boys, 13 and 15. (read more)

These are demanding roles for student actors, as the youngsters are on stage for most of the two-hour play, and are even handed the expositional chores at the start. But while Eli Pendry and Will Fritz do well in these parts, the production works because the four principal adult roles are all in good hands.

Young Jay and Arty Kurnitz may get a lot of Simon's carefully honed wisecracks, but the play isn't really about them, and they're hardly the only characters to whom the title applies. While much of the 20-year-old play is funny, there's an underlying darkness to it as well: At heart, it's about how an emotionally abusive woman has damaged the lives of her four adult children.

Grandma Kurnitz (Lucinda Merry-Browne) is a scowling, limping refutation of the cliche about Jewish mothers being founts of warmth, understanding and chicken soup. The year is 1942, and the play is set in her apartment over the candy store she has been running in Yonkers, N.Y., for decades.

A widowed immigrant from Germany, in constant pain from a foot crushed in childhood, Grandma - it's no accident we're never told her first name - has brought up her four surviving children with slaps, blows from her cane, occasional incarceration in the closet, and withering contempt for tears and other emotional displays. As she tells her terrified grandsons: "You don't survive in this world without being like steel."

Jay and Arty are on the premises for this pep talk because their mother has died of cancer and their father Eddie (Anthony Bosco), desperate to meet her medical expenses, has gone deep in debt to a loan shark. Now the war has given Eddie - by his own admission the crybaby of Grandma Kurnitz's brood - the chance to pay off the debt in under a year by taking to the road to sell scrap iron. But in the meantime, his sons must be left with Darth Grandma.

While they work as unpaid labor in the store, and hunt for the hoard of cash Grandma has squirreled away somewhere on the property, Jay and Arty get plenty of opportunities to see how the you-must-be-like-steel child-raising philosophy has worked out.

Their father lacks self-esteem. Aunt Gert (Sarah Strasser) has gotten off lightly, with an agonizing speech impediment that flares up when she visits her mother. Uncle Louie (Daniel Siefring) has found a childhood of being treated like a rebellious prison inmate to be excellent preparation for his career as a small-time gangster. (Arty can't quite keep straight whether Louie is a henchman or a hunchback, but thinks that he's "like having a James Cagney movie in your own house.")

Then there's Aunt Bella (Brianna Letourneau), who had scarlet fever in infancy and is now 35 going on 16. Mentally fogged-in but good-hearted - if prone to unpredictable gusts of temper - she has remained at home, and paid the price.

Bella is less cowed than she appears at first glance, and wants more from life than working at the store and giving Grandma back rubs. Yet even Jay and Arty can see that her master plan - marrying and opening a restaurant with a fortyish theater usher with a "reading handicap" - is a pipe dream. Still, Bella's belated, heartfelt push for fulfillment leads to a climactic mother-daughter clash that is one of the best - and least funny - things Simon has ever written.

This is strong material - the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama - and the actors at Compass Rose are up to it. Merry-Browne, the theater company's founder and director, has Grandma's implacable air of command down pat; attention gravitates to her even when she's just sitting in the corner knitting. Letourneau nails Bella's confusion, her warm heart, and the strong will that underlies both - at bottom, Bella is her mother's daughter.

Louie's extended scenes with the two boys do little to advance the plot but are fun in their own right, with Siefring providing a smooth blend of the avuncular and the menacing. And, Bosco, without overdoing it, shows us that Eddie - a good guy and a good father - has to choke down not just tears but panic whenever he nears Kurnitz's Kandy Store in Yonkers.

Jay eventually concludes that he's "learned a lot … some good and some bad" from his time with Grandma. Simon is an optimist and a commercial playwright, so what he seems to want the audience to learn is that growing up in a dysfunctional family is survivable - but leaves a deep and indelible mark.

Neil Simon has been funnier in many plays, but he may never been more honest than he was in "Lost in Yonkers." And that's what makes the play, and this production, worthwhile. (read less)

Lost in Yonkers at Compass Rose Theater
November 6, 2011 - MD Theatre Guide

With a cast of unique characters – the Compass Rose Theater’s production of Lost In Yonkers puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional family. The story is a moving yet comedic tale of family; two grandsons being placed in their estranged grandmother’s stern care while their father goes away to work, and the way a family comes together in a time of need despite their odd quirks and dysfunctions. Only ever taking place in the grandmother’s apartment – we gain a world of knowledge about this disconnected family through watching their engaging interactions with each other. Director Brandon McCoy brings together a talented group of actors and guides them with insight to create a brilliant, funny, and moving performance. (read more)

From the moment you see the set you feel transported back in time to 1942. Set designers Jo Ann Gidos and Sophie George spare no details in creating this antiquated yet cozy apartment. The wallpaper has an off-white coloring with paisley pattering in faded shades of gray and even has bubbles trapped beneath it on the wall that borders the bathroom. This delicate attention to detail creates the illusion of poverty without having to strip the set of its basic furnishings. Gidos and George use a large off-white striped sofa as the centerpiece to the room, complete with lace doilies, filling the space with the notion of simplicity. Aged photographs adorn the walls, and there are simple careworn woven rugs to decorate the otherwise bare floor. They create an atmosphere that feels well lived in, and homey without overloading the stage with unnecessary props and furniture. The costumes, designed by Meaghan O’Bierne, add an extra zing to the period piece. They add not only to the sense of being in another time, but they give a little extra life to each of the characters. O’Bierne makes great use out of a double-breasted, black pinstripe suit complete with a black fedora and leather shoes with white spats to help further define Uncle Louie (Daniel Siefring) as a mobster. She does the same for the children, fitting the youngest in tweed high-kneed trousers and long black stocking socks. The outfits certainly enhance the unique qualities of the characters throughout the production.

And these unique characters are dynamic. Each of the actors are well-fitted to their roles, finding quirks and various physical embodiments to further enrich the lives of these fictitious people. The two sons, Jay (Eli Pendry) and Arty (Will Fritz) are lively children despite their difficult situation. Pendry, as the older of the two, shows moments of wisdom to his character’s credit as he sits staring pensively at the floor, or gazing deep in thought out the window. His quips in response to Fritz’s character are laced with the slight edge of sarcasm, making them engaging and witty. Pendry channels the right level of emotional outbursts for the teenage character, having a moody explosion resulting in tears which he then quickly but convincingly clears up with a few off-handed comments. Fritz’s portrayal of the younger brother is astounding. He provides high-energetic levels to the character, with a spitfire attitude when mouthing off to his grandmother. Together the two young men have brilliant chemistry between them, providing very convincing performances of brotherhood and camaraderie. They respond with wide-eyed believable fear when being reprimanded, and play well off of each other throughout the show.

The young boys’ father, Eddie (Anthony Bosco), is presented at first as a very nervous and meek man. Bosco physically manifests these qualities through his spastic emotional reactions – eyes popping out of his head as he fusses over the doilies on the back of the couch, the constant tugging at his necktie as he complains about the heat. He is expressive and motivated as he paces back and forth from the living room to the off-stage bedroom. Aunty Bella (Brianna Letourneau) presents with similar energy. Her character is aloof and often caught in her own world and Letourneau’s performance gives great inside to that confined little world. She is able to provide the correct balance required of a character who sees the world differently than the rest of us without collapsing so far into the character that we no longer recognize what’s happening. Letourneau has believably ditzy interactions with the boys, and has real excitement in her voice as she overexcites herself in certain scenes. She comes to a genuine emotional crescendo late in act II that is touching and moving to watch. Her commitment to the character is strong and this is easily seen through her vocal and physical choices throughout the show.

But if there’s a character that really fills the stage it’s Uncle Louie (Daniel Siefring). Dressed to the stereotypical epitome of a mobster, from the moment he enters the apartment you can’t take your eyes off him. Siefring adapts a New York mobster style accent that is believable and enjoyable. He speaks with an oily yet smooth voice as he tells his tales, and bursts easily from over-the-top anger to overjoyed chuckles. Siefring steals the scene when he slowly swipes his fingers across his eyebrows, makes a full-bodied swinging gesture and winks as he says, “that’s moxie.” And then there’s Aunt Gert (Sarah Strasser) who we only meet for a moment, but she lives up to her descriptions created by the other characters so well that you want to see more of her. Described as a nervous woman who can’t speak correctly, Strasser fits the bill with her crumpled form as she sits nervously on the couch. And when she speaks, you burst into laughter because she has mastered the ‘speaking while inhaling’ as was foretold by Arty and Jay.

Grandma Kurnitz is perhaps the most stunning performance throughout the entire piece. Portrayed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, the aging German grandmother is a formidable force to be reckoned with and Merry-Browne’s performance does not disappoint. She masters the intimidating physicality of this stern woman despite the character’s need for a cane. Merry-Browne makes wonderful use of this prop, really leaning her weight upon it and walking with an appropriate limp to present a convincing crippled character. The broken English overlaid with the thick German accent adds another layer of foreboding to this character and again merry-Browne does not disappoint. She speaks flawlessly as if she’d been speaking broken German-accented English all her life. Her face is extremely expressive; narrowing her eyes in suspicion and anger at her grandson’s, showing wide shocked eyes when Bella has news. She presents a riled-up defiance, letting nothing get to her; truly becoming the steel that her character is compared to throughout the show.

So come get lost, hopefully not on the way to this amazing production of Lost in Yonkers at the Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis. (read less)

Lost in Yonkers
October 27, 2011 - Bay Weekly

The new Compass Rose Theater in Eastport’s Bay Ridge Shopping Center has hit on a winning strategy for success, debuting with Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Lost in Yonkers. That strategy: deliver family entertainment starring student-child actors alongside seasoned professionals, and watch them grow. It’s inspirational on a human and artistic level.

Picture two kids in a candy store, spoiled and happy. Now turn your expectations upside down, and you have life as the Kurnitz brothers know it for one year, living with their severe grandmother above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store. Lanky Jay (Eli Pendry) and little Arty (Will Fritz) are surrounded by tragedy: World War II, their mother’s death and poverty. Their father, Eddie (Anthony Bosco), is so overwhelmed by debt that he takes itinerant work and leaves his boys in the care of his mother, a woman so disagreeable she has scarred all of her children. Grandma Kurnitz (Lucinda Merry-Browne) is cold and strong as steel, miserly in spirit and substance, sharp as nails and blunt as a mallet. But she loves her family in her own perverse way. (read more)

Themes of estrangement, domination and duty run deep in this play, yet throughout is delightful comic relief in the boys’ coping skills with their dysfunctional guardian angels in the form of two aunts and an uncle. Bella (Brianna Letourneau) is a ditsy but loving old maid, capable yet incapable. Louie (Daniel Siefring), a mercurial gangster with the wisdom of Solomon, teaches the boys moxie, a quality their father never learned. Gert (Sarah Strasser) is good for laughs as the flibbertigibbet who inhales her words like a Hoover. Survivors all, they never liked their mother, but they didn’t hate her either. It’s an important distinction as Louie impresses on the boys.

The adult cast is superb. Letourneau is full of subtle surprises. Bosco is so overwrought the audience squirms for him, while Seifring as his antithesis is as terrifying and fun as Halloween. But Merry-Browne’s spellbinding portrayal of an omniscient, omnipotent woman steals the show.

As for the student performers, Pendry and Fritz work so well as a comedy team that you can almost hear Abbot and Costello in their bickering. Fritz brings to Arty’s impudence an impishness that is the perfect foil to Pendry’s gravity. The one rule of acting that they have not mastered yet, though, is the art of speaking upstage without turning their backs.

The production staff has done a fine job of recreating the drab war years with period costumes that are perfect, from Arty’s knickers to Grandma’s oxford heels, and the set is stiff as the family and faded as their dreams.

This is a wonderful show for all, from the war generation to next generation and the text generation. (read less)