Master playwright Neil Simon flawlessly blends elements of comedy and drama in his semi-autobiographical, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers. The play's most side-splitting scenes contain a trace of heartache, and the tensest moments incorporate an undercurrent of laughter. Spot-on delivery and even pacing are essential to a successful production of this complex material, and 2nd Story Theatre's cast, under the direction of Mark Peckham, is entirely up to the task.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, Lost in Yonkers chronicles a year in the life of brothers Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Their widower father, Eddie, leaves the boys in Yonkers in the care of their prickly, authoritarian grandmother while he travels south, selling scrap metal to repay debts connected to his late wife's medical care. The brothers are less than enthusiastic about this arrangement (everyone in Yonkers fears their formidable grandmother, after all), but they settle in to the apartment over their grandmother's candy store to wait for their father's return.
Andrew Iacovelli and Matthew Pirraglia play Jay and Arty. These young men show a great brotherly rapport in all of their scenes, and both actors prove savvy and commendably nimble in their performances. Iacovelli deftly manages his often rapid-fire lines; he skillfully communicates Jay's lingering youthful mischievousness and his burgeoning maturity. Arty has some of the wittiest one-liners in the script, and talented youngster Pirraglia brings just the right balance of precociousness and dry humor to this role.
Paula Faber gives Grandmother Kurnitz her unbending, steely edge. There is nothing warm or welcoming about this silver-haired matriarch. Faber distances Grandma from her family both through her cutting words and her highly aloof manner; indeed, unless she is in the midst of delivering a sharp rebuke, she hardly even makes eye contact with her children and grandchildren. Yet none of the characters in Yonkers are simple or one-dimensional, and Faber's manner of speech and severAl Small gestures hint at a deeper motivation for Grandma's stony mien. Faber delivers a truly compelling performance as the family's history unfolds in the second act.
Hillary Parker brings the boys' childlike aunt Bella to life, merging strong comic timing with an effortless grace and delicacy. Her character is undeniably funny, but even in Bella's flightiest, most scatter-brained moments, Parker tempers the laughter by instilling Bella with quiet dignity, artless enthusiasm, and an intermittent awareness of her mental limitations.
Ara Boghigian steps into the highly polished wingtips of Louie, the brothers' wiseguy uncle. Flashy and slick, Boghigian plays Louie as a small-time Sonny Corleone – brash, arrogant and very amusing. Boghigian subtly peels away layers of Louie's bluster in his interactions with his nephews, and later unaffectedly, if briefly, drops his tough guy persona during a tense exchange with Grandma Kurnitz.
Though they have minimum stage time, Joe Henderson as Eddie and Tray Gearing as Aunt Gert bring big personality to their scenes. Gearing masterfully maintains a straight face while performing Gert's nervous breathing tic, and Henderson executes multiple comic entrances and exits while rapidly shifting from momentary displays of strength to bouts of intense nervousness. Like every other member of this dysfunctional family, these characters embody a compelling blend of comedy and tragedy.
In the end, Lost in Yonkers contains a great deal of heart, but it delivers its message without descending into cloying sentiment. The story is a smart, enjoyable, thought-provoking look at love and loss across three generations of one family, and 2nd Story's company delivers a truly outstanding performance.
2nd Story Theatre presents Lost in Yonkers through December 16, 2012. A talk-back session will be held immediately following the December 2 performance. Tickets are available by phone (401) 247-4200, through e-mail email@example.com, or by visiting the box office at 28 Market Street, Warren, RI. See the company's website www.2ndstorytheatre.com for more information. Regular tickets are $25; audience members under age 21 pay $20.
Pictured: Paula Faber, Matthew Pirraglia and Andrew Iacovelli
PHOTO CREDIT Richard W. Dionne, Jr.