After a decidedly uneven season thus far, Hartford Stage has suddenly stuck gold with an immensely satisfying revival of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.” The icing on the cake here is that the production is anchored by a star, Marsha Mason, taking on a crucial role. Mr. Simon would be proud.
Unlike many of Simon’s plays these days (the current Broadway revival of “Plaza Suite” comes to mind), “Lost in Yonkers” has not dated at all. In fact, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner seems more relevant than ever in these trying times. Set in 1942, two teenage brothers (Gabriel Amoroso, Hayden Bercy) are sent to live with their stern grandmother (Ms. Mason) and mentally challenged Aunt Bella (Andrea Syglowski, superb) while their widowed father (Jeff Skowron) sets out across the country to work off a debt. Grandma Kurnitz, who has run the candy store below her apartment for years, lost two children early on which has made her unloving and a strict disciplinarian to her remaining four children, all now emotionally damaged adults.
All the acting here is first-rate beginning with Mason who conveys years of pain and bitterness with a steely look or a directed head turn, acting at its best and most effective. Syglowski, in the key role of Bella, never hits a false note and her triumphant challenge to her mother late in the play is delivered with just the right amount of fear, desperation and grit. The able Mr. Skowron has the job of delivering the lion’s share of exposition at the opening making sure that Grandma is a fierce legend before she even steps on stage. Ne’er-do-well Uncle Louie (Michael Nathanson channeling movie gangsters of the period) is terrific and, in a small, mostly one-joke role, Liba Vaynberg registers as his lonely sister whose vocal oddities garner big laughs. Amoroso and Bercy, who really do hold their own in a company of polished adult actors, could slow down their delivery for clarity and learn to hold for laughs, but they are still a charming duo who also benefit from actually looking like brothers.
The homey apartment setting by designer Lauren Helpern is all wallpaper, chintz and doilies with the bonus addition of a fantastic art deco neon sign hanging over the set advertising Grandma’s candy store below. An-Lin Dauber’s costumes are right on-target as is Aja M. Jackson’s warm lighting design.
Beautifully co-directed by Ms. Mason and Rachel Alderman, this is one of Simon’s best plays. Sentimental but not maudlin, funny but not just a string of cheap one-liners. What a joy to sit in the theatre and see a well-made play with a gifted company of actors playing characters both humane and witty that one truly cares about. This is the definition of a crowd-pleaser. Go.
“Lost in Yonkers” continues at Hartford Stage through May 1. For further information, call the box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.