At first it looks as if Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers (1991) will repeat the coming-of-age theme in his Brighton Beach trilogy. It’s 1942. When their father hits the road to pay off a loan shark, Jay and Artie Kurnitz move in with their grandmother, a Germanic glacier who runs her walk-up apartment with Hitlerian control. The battle looks to be between the hip, wisecracking boys — based, most likely, on Simon and his older brother Danny — and the cane-wielding battleaxe, who won’t let anyone touch her. And it looks to be no contest.
But instead of another Oscar-versus-Felix opposition, in which adversity generates sitcom-ish one-liners, Yonkers focuses on a sad, in some ways tragic, couple: Grandma Kurnitz and Bella, her 35-year-old, mentally challenged daughter. Bella’s mind is “closed for repairs,” one of the boys quips. But she has enough irrepressible feelings for herself and her grandmother combined. When Grandma K learns that Bella has a beau, she squelches her daughter with the emotional equivalent of a fire extinguisher.
Simon suggests that Grandma K’s at least partly responsible for Bella’s condition, and for that of her other son, Louie, who learned how to steal and fight back from her.
Grandma K steals from her store downstairs and blames others. She also sucks all the oxygen from a room. Simon hammers this point into the ground: the apartment is stifling and her daughter, Gert, has trouble breathing, literally. Simon also offers a reductive diagnosis for Grandma K’s repression: “You just want to make me miserable because someone in Germany made you miserable,” shouts Arty, finally fighting back like Uncle Louie.
In the Old Globe’s production, Judy Kaye doesn’t need the persistently melodramatic effects — the lights dimming, her cane thumping the ground like a metronome — that accompany Grandma K’s entrances. When she enters a room, limping on a foot broken in Germany, it’s clear why her children have stayed far away. Kaye suggests positive qualities but, to her credit, never attempts to make her character likable. She’s an iron gray cold front set to storm on any opposition.
Ralph Funicello’s set defines her character instantly. From the worn rugs to the crocheted doilies, Grandma K’s living room screams “order” and probably has for decades. Change doesn’t come hard to this locale; it doesn’t come at all.
On opening night, Jennifer Regan’s Bella took some getting used to. Hands waving, eyes bugging, she was excessively giddy and external. Once she settled, however, Regan went inside Bella and revealed a grown woman trying to break out. Jeffrey M. Bender gave Uncle Louie a similar arc. The mob “henchman” began like a cardboard character in a Neil Simon comedy. Then he erupted, again and again. Louie has survived his upbringing, he’s proud to say, but may fare less well in the near future.
Steven Kaplan and Austyn Myers play the young brothers with impressive, minimalist choices. Amanda Naughton and Spencer Rowe also contribute in minor roles. Alejo Vietti’s costumes evoke the period and the family’s economic status.
Lost in Yonkers marks the official opening of the Old Globe’s new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, which looks to be a fine replacement for the Cassius Carter. I do have one complaint. Thus far the Globe has mounted two shows — the musical I Do! I Do! and Yonkers — on the new arena stage. We’re a decade into the 21st Century. Isn’t it time for more current, state-of-the-nation fare to match the state-of-the-art space?
Cygnet should make it an annual tradition: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directing one of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays. Two years ago, her Fences earned a passel of Craig Noel awards. Cygnet’s current offering, The Piano Lesson, again displays her deep affinity for the material.
So does her top-notch cast. Wearing Megan Schmidt’s 1936 costumes, the ensemble conveys a sense of pride in the work — and also of fun when they break into the old Parchman Farm lament, “O Lord Berta, Berta O Lord Gal” (she’s up in Meridian, living at ease, while they’re at the state penitentiary, a Mississippi plantation, slaving from dawn to dusk).
There’s a lot of Wilson in all of his characters, but especially in Boy Willie, the fast-talking African-American who spent three years at Parchman Farm and who dreams of owning land in the South. Neither backs down: Wilson refused to conform to restrictive aesthetics for his plays; and Boy Willie only halts when a gun points at his eyes. In Mark Christopher Lawrence’s terrific performance, Boy Willie also resembles Sir John Falstaff. Both are larger than life and, no matter the question, they always have a sharp retort. The difference: Boy Willie’s as serious as Falstaff is playful. Born “in a time of fire,” Boy Willie will do anything — even wrestle a ghost — to fulfill his dream.
The family heirloom, an old piano with carvings, could be his answer. To his sister Berniece, however, the piano is a priceless legacy, telling the history of their family from slavery and even further back. “You can’t sell your soul for money,” she tells Boy Willie.
As Berniece, Monique Gaffney is a force for preservation. Her toe-to-toe battles with Lawrence attain such epic stature that their dilemma feels unsolvable (unless they Solomon the piano in half, there seems no way out). But the play’s ending, “from somewhere old,” makes for a dramatic, terrifying, and ultimately moving resolution.
Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Scott Schwartz; cast: Steven Kaplan, Austyn Myers, Spencer Rowe, Jennifer Regan, Judy Kaye, Jeffrey M. Bender, Amanda Naughton; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Matthew McCarthy; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through February 28; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Laurence Brown, Monique Gaffney, Madeline Hornbuckle, Keith Jefferson, Antonio “T.J.” Johnson, Tanya Johnson-Herron, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Grandison Phelps III; scenic design, Jerry Sonnenberg; costumes, Megan Schmidt; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, George Ye
Playing through February 28; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.