Neil Simon, one of the most successful playwrights in the country, is skilled at blending laughs and pathos into recognizable characters, but with his 1991 play, “Lost In Yonkers,” he didn’t rely so heavily on the one-liners. The shift towards drama earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Saying “Lost In Yonkers” is a drama, is not to say it isn’t funny, and the Resort Players of Mount Washington Valley’s production mines the show for all the laughs its worth.
Set in New York during World War II, a widowed father (Ken Martin) in debt to loan sharks leaves his two sons Jay (Jake Dunham) and Arty (David Fulton) with his cold mother (Stacy Sand) and kooky sister Bella (Molly Campbell), so he can go on the road to sell scrap metal. During the boys stay they also encounter their Uncle Louie (Dennis O’Neil), a henchman for a gangster and their Aunt Gert (Karen O'Neil), who has an odd speaking problem that is better left heard than described.
At its core, the play is about the effect not being loved by a parent has on a child. The self-proclaimed steel-like grandmother never shows warmth or affection to her children or grandchildren. Each of her children deals with her differently, but all fear her instead of love her. As Louie puts it, “I didn’t say I hate her, I just don’t like her.”
The tone of director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann’s production feels slightly off, leaning more toward the comic tendencies of the script than the dramatic ones. The show falls into a rhythm of delivering one-liners and punch-lines that unfortunately carries over to some of the more dramatic scenes. The audience I saw the show with continued laughing during a serious scene in which Louie tells Arty about his childhood.
The problem in tone is a minor quibble, because the show still works and entertains. We all need a little escape from our lives, so a refocus on the comic aspect of Simon’s play isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since, when it counts most, the production provides the required dramatic weight. A scene in which Bella desperately pleads for her mother’s approval is deeply affecting. The rejection she feels is palpable and heart-wrenching.
Neil Simon's dialogue has a flow all its own and the cast is up to the challenge of delivering it. Campbell has the show’s most challenging role as a woman with a childlike mind and adult emotions. In the show’s early scenes Campbell successfully and hilariously plays Bella's loopy personality, but as the show progresses Bella becomes more than just a comedic device and Campbell keeps Bella human and real.
As Uncle Louie, O’Neil is a scene stealer full of energy and, as his character would put it, moxie. O’Neil’s scenes with Dunham and Fulton are some of the best in the show and he has an excellent chemistry and rapport with the two young actors.
Of the production's youngest actors, Fulton, an eighth grader at Bartlett Middle School, fares best as the younger brother, but this is no fault of Dunham. Fulton’s Arty is the more rambunctious of the two brothers and has the better lines. Dunham, a sophomore at Fryeburg Academy, has to play it more straight than Fulton, but is good, especially in a startling moment when anger gives way to tears.
Sand as the grandmother in many respects is required to be the center of the show. Her quiet cruelty is the driving force of all the action in the play. Sand, stuck with the hurdle of delivering all her dialogue with a German accent, succeeds at being a detestable figure who at same time the audience is able to sympathize with in the final scenes.
The set, constructed and painted by Mark DeLancey, Matt Hashem, Danielle Davis, Ken Martin, Dennis O’Neil and Sharon Roberts, effectively evokes the 1940s, as well as capturing the feeling of a cramped apartment. The use of black and white period footage projected onto a screen on the back of the stage is also effective at creating a sense of place and mood for the production.