One of the major disappointments of the Manhattan season (so far) was the quick shuttering of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and the cancellation of its “Broadway Bound” companion piece after David Cromer’s beautifully staged revival of Neil Simon’s play failed to attract customers. Across the Hudson, Paper Mill Playhouse’s so-so production of Simon’s 1991 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning “Lost in Yonkers” is a different kind of disappointment. What little emotional resonance director Michael Bloom draws from the somewhat patchy play is dissipated within the barn-like 1,200-seat house.
“Lost in Yonkers” is a cousin to the similar and earlier “Brighton Beach Memoirs”: Set in the New York area against the distant rumbling of WWII, the comedy-drama is built around wisecracking teen brothers observing their Jewish-American family’s troubles. Bleaker than the Brooklyn opus, the Yonkers saga involves an even more dysfunctional clan.
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Following their mother’s death, Jay (Alex Wyse) and Arty (Maxwell Beer) unwillingly are parked with Grandma Kurnitz (Rosemary Prinz), a fearsome German matriarch they scarcely know, while their anxious father Eddie (John Plumpis) travels as a salesman to pay off loan sharks for his wife’s hospital bills.
Living above Grandma’s candy store, the boys witness an impending struggle between the grim old lady and her adult daughter Bella (Sara Surrey), a sweet, developmentally stunted soul sorely yearning to marry and enjoy a life of her own. As that conflict brews, the brothers find themselves sharing a sofa-bed with swaggering Uncle Louie (J. Anthony Crane), a Cagney-style minor crook on the lam. Bella’s issues come to a boil during an increasingly tense family conference also attended by wheezing Aunt Gert (Patricia Buckley).
An uneasy patchwork of comedy and drama, “Lost in Yonkers” is not as seamless a play as “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and Bloom’s slack staging doesn’t stitch its parts together satisfactorily. Although this co-production already has been presented at Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida and Ohio’s Cleveland Playhouse (where Bloom is artistic director), there’s often an odd disconnect among the actors — as if they were still getting attuned to each other’s rhythms.
Fortunately this sense of isolation works well for the intimidating figure of Grandma Kurnitz, a steely old bird who apparently takes pleasure in keeping everyone at arm’s length. Icily depicted by “As the World Turns” vet Prinz with a ramrod-straight posture, a trudging limp and an unsettling stare, Grandma gets a sly kick out of discomposing the family. Whenever she’s terrorizing those grandsons, a mocking, sing-song quality creeps into her German accent, suggesting she’s toying with them.
In sharp contrast, Surrey’s warmhearted Bella is a restless, impulsive creature whose sunny vagueness can abruptly darken into threatening displeasure. Resembling an overgrown schoolgirl, her tall, broad-shouldered character physically looms over the others. So it’s a credit to the indomitable nature with which Prinz imbues Grandma that the tiny tyrant has no problem cowing her Amazonian daughter.
Soberly dressed in ’40s duds by David Kay Mickelson — with Grandma duly gloomy in blacks — the other actors are competent but make surprisingly little impression, their performances hampered by the inhospitable vastness of Paper Mill’s auditorium. Positioned within a framed-down proscenium, Michael Schweikardt’s set for Grandma’s fusty apartment is mellow with shades of browns and wood, lit in a butterscotch glow by Paul Miller. Ken Travis’ sound design keeps the dialogue clear.
“Lost in Yonkers” must wait for a more effective production to see whether the play is worth its weight in past awards. Meanwhile, the Paper Mill management wisely has announced that its voluminous theater will be entirely occupied by a slate of five musicals in the 2010-2011 season.