Neil Simon’s poignant wartime family comedy, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner, blends rich characterization with comic brilliance to create a fine evening of theater.
Eddie (Martin Shakar), who recently lost his wife to cancer and is up to his eyeballs in debt, is forced to take a job on the road, leaving his two sons, Jay (Jeff Maynard) and Arty (Alex Dezen), with his mother (Mercedes McCambridge) in Yonkers.
No ordinary grandmother, Grandma Kunitz is from the old school of German-Jewish matriarchs, who alone runs her family and her business with an iron fist, showing little affection for her sons, Eddie and Louie (Ned Eisenberg), or her daughters, Bella (Brooke Adams) and Gert (Polly Adams).
Simon tells the story largely through the eyes of the young boys sent against their will to live with their tyrannical grandmother.
But the richness and depth of the play resides primarily in the character of Bella, the childlike, eccentric daughter who, at the age of 35, lives at home and takes care of her mother.
Bella, played with tenderness and care by Brooke Adams, is a theatrical character of the stature of Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” and represents, in many ways, Simon’s most accomplished mix of comic and tragic figures.
Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching this play, as well as those in the “Brighton Beach” trilogy, is to experience the evolution of Neil Simon’s work.
Not only is Simon by far the most accomplished and important American playwright of the past 30 years, but he is virtually the only American playwright whose entire body of work has been consistently and extensively seen by the public.
Simon’s comic genius rests primarily in his rich and specific characterization, and many of the characters in this play are exquisitely drawn. Jay, the super-responsible yet terribly sensitive older brother, and Arty, the wise but innocent younger brother, played with gusto by Dezen, are fun, lively and impeccably written characters.
Eisenberg is unforgettable as Uncle Louie, the bag man with moxie, who goes to the mat with Grandma every time, when we suspect what he really needs is a hug. While McCambridge is eloquent in her performance of Grandma Kunitz, the character itself is more static than others in the play.
If there is any weakness in the play, it is in the dramatic structure, which is somewhat predictable, and in the scenes of emotional confrontation, which occasionally have an expository ring. But the overall comic flow of the play and , most important, the memorable characters overshadow any slimness of plot.
Direction by Gene Saks is honest and direct, and sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Tharon Musser and sound by Tom Morse are not only perfect for the period, but evocative as well.