`Lost in Yonkers' is Simon at his best

Review

April 05, 2001|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Throw two motherless teen-age boys into an apartment with a loopy aunt, a gangster uncle and a vicious grandmother, stir in some great one-liners, and you have Neil Simon at his best.

Winner of four Tony awards, including Best Play in 1991, and the Pulitzer Prize, "Lost in Yonkers" is great entertainment by any measure and ideally suited to Paragon Theatre's compact stage in Crownsville.

Set in 1942 Yonkers, the play, which continues through May 20, focuses on teen-agers Jay and Arty and their father, Eddie Kurnitz, who pays his dead wife's medical bills by taking a defense job dealing in scrap metal. The job requires Eddie to travel around the country, forcing him to leave his sons with his mother.

The boys' childlike Aunt Bella lives with and tries to please her mother, and works in the family candy store below the apartment. Uncle Louie, a small-time gangster, is hiding out at his mother's apartment. But hard as life is for Jay and Arty, forced to work in the candy store and to live an adult-style life where no toys are permitted, they discover that their grandmother's childhood in Germany was worse.

Paragon founders Greg Kemper and his father, Herman, the play's director, chose "Yonkers" primarily as a vehicle for 14-year-old Lex Davis, with whom they worked in 1997. Although it might seem risky to choose a play in which success depends on the skill of teen-age actors, the gamble has clearly paid off.

Davis, who plays Arty, and Jake Hartman, who plays Jay, are skilled actors. They are central to this character-driven story, almost constantly on stage, delivering comic lines and reacting to the craziness around them.

Davis conveys a mix of vulnerability and loneliness for his mother combined with smarts that help him cope with his situation. He banters with his grandmother, communicating a grudging affection for her.

Hartman is brilliant as older brother Jay, who can read his eccentric relatives and copes by zinging one-liners in classic Simon style.

In the difficult role of Grandma, Joan Corcoran expresses her character's strength and shrewdness along with tough love beneath her hard exterior. Corcoran portrays a classic survivor with steely strength and dignity that fleshes out what could be a one-dimensional, cruel, old woman.

Greg Kemper pulls off an acting feat by playing both brothers - Eddie, the beaten-down father of Arty and Jay, and Louie, who survives by his wits, making money as a bag man - a role with comic potential fully exploited by Kemper.

Maria Lakkala brings life to Bella, conveying her sweetness and longing for love. As Bella's sister Gert, Keri Johnson mixes comedy and pathos.

The show was enjoyable, but what about those weird appetizers? The theme-centered menu works well with the upside-down ice cream cone dessert served at intermission, but our group would have preferred a soup or salad first course instead of baba ghanouj and bulgur-chickpea salad. Imagine the comic possibilities Simon could exploit here.

Paragon Theatre is in Trifles Restaurant at 1397 Generals Highway, Crownsville. Call 410-923-6600 or 410-494-9329 for reservations or information.

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