In “Lost in Yonkers,” Hartford Stage has delivered the kind of show that I’ve been waiting for from this fine theatre. Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical Pulitzer-prize winning tragicomedy is co-directed by the great Marsha Mason and the talented Rachel Alderman, and these two artists perfectly balance the humor, the sorrow, and the poignance in a show that can easily trap a director into losing sight of the script’s depth and heart. This “Lost in Yonkers,” though, achieves near perfection.
In addition to directing, Ms. Mason plays the key role of Grandma Kurnitz, a woman of steel whose horrific life has made her a cold, tyrannical parent and a grandmother with no affection for her two young teenage grandsons, Jay and Arty. Set in 1942, the play’s inciting incidents are that the boys’ mother has died of cancer, and their father, Eddie, must work as a traveling salesman for ten months to pay off the medical bills that put him in debt.
He has no choice but to leave his sons in Yonkers with their grandma, who, even in his adulthood, terrifies him. Eddie’s hope for his boys during this time lies with his sister Bella, a woman in her 30’s whose view of the world is child-like, but who is as kind and loving as Grandma’s is harsh. Jay and Arty also meet Grandma’s other adult children, both damaged survivors: Louie, the gangster; and Gert, whose breathing and speaking rhythms have been permanently altered by the stress of her upbringing.
All of these are beautifully written roles, and the casting here is superb. Ms. Mason uses subtle gestures and expressions to portray Grandma not as a one-dimensional monster (which is one trap in this play) but as a complex woman closed off from emotion and without sympathy for anyone, especially anyone showing weakness, no matter their circumstances or distress.
Jeff Skowron imbues Eddie with just the right concerned love for his sons and life-long terror of his mother. Michael Nathanson, as Louie, provides welcome comic relief, yet when he gets tough with the boys, he is terrifying. Liba Vaynberg is lovely as Gert; she makes one wish that Simon had written more for this character and had eased up on her speech problem, which, through no fault of this actor, is more distressing than amusing.
As Jay, Hayden Bercy is convincing and touching, though at times he needs to enunciate more clearly and let the audience members’ laughter crest before going on with his lines. Gabriel Amoroso, as the younger Arty, has cracker-jack timing and the perfect pint-sized wise-guy manner: exactly right for the character modeled on Simon at that age.
Among all these remarkable actors, Andrea Syglowski gives a consummate performance as Bella; indeed, she is one of the finest actors I’ve seen on a Connecticut stage in the past fifteen years. When Bella is happy, our sprits soar with her, and when she is anxious, hurt, or worse, we feel every painful nuance. Bella can be played too broadly, but Syglowski finds the perfect pitch for Bella in every scene. Quite simply, we love her.
Lauren Helpern’s set design is clever. Curving around the back of the raised playing space is a wall covered in green period wallpaper; set in the wall are five green doors, side by side. These give the initial impression of a door-slamming farce, but we quickly understand that they are here to convey a sense of how small and cramped the apartment is. What we see is the one room that serves as a living room (and Jay and Arty’s bedroom, curtesy of a pull-out sofa) and a dining room. We can only imagine the small size of the bedrooms and bathroom behind the doors.
Eddie writes to his sons during his travels, and with each new letter he appears in a spotlight, moving outside and around the elevated stage: an elegant way of showing his travels.
An-Lin Dauber’s costumes and Charles G. Lapointe’s wig and hair design perfectly capture both the time period and each character’s essence, while Aja M. Jackson’s lighting, warmly indicative of the past, is just right for a memory play.
I can’t imagine a better production of “Lost in Yonkers,” and you will never see a better Bella. I urge you to make the trip.