Tossed in Yonkers

It's the end of an era. Theater Works, arguably the best community theatre in the Valley, must be out of its Glendale facility by December 31. The troupe plans to move to a new site at 91st Avenue and Thunderbird in Peoria, but that venue won't be ready until next fall. Until then, Theater Works is looking for a temporary home to close out its current season. The move is coming five months earlier than anticipated, making the troupe's current show, Lost in Yonkers, its last at the Glendale location.

Unfortunately, "the barn's" reign ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, is drawn from Simon's childhood. The story centers on 15-year-old Jay Kurnitz and his experiences growing up in New York City in the 1940s. Jay's father, Eddie, who is in debt to a loan shark, plans to exploit the war effort so he can pay the debt. To accomplish this, however, he must leave Jay and his younger brother, Arty, with their grandmother.

We quickly learn that living with Grandma might be a fate worse than any devised by gangster lenders, despite that Grandma Kurnitz resides over the Kurnitz Kandy Store, which she has run since her children were young.

Eddie's kin are typically outrageous Simon creations. Bella, the younger sister, is a nearly retarded, forgetful but well-intentioned woman who still lives with her mother. Louie, Eddie's older brother, is a smooth-talking gangster. Gert, the older sister, is a woman with an unfortunate (though hilarious) speech impediment.

Grandma, a bitter old woman who never showed love to her children, is now reaping her harvest: Bella is a woman who looks for love from every man she meets; Louie is a money launderer for the mob; Gert can barely be understood when she talks; and Eddie, the "weak" one, has grown up unable to handle his own misfortunes.

Yonkers is not your standard Simon comedy, though every line in the first 20 minutes of the show leads you to believe otherwise. Dropped into the script at odd, seemingly arbitrary, intervals are heavy dramatic monologues reminiscent of Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams. These abrupt mood swings don't occur organically, but are thrust upon the audience with little or no preparation. For example, during Grandma's first appearance, she spins a long, depressing monologue about the burden of growing up a Jew in Germany and how her children all failed to learn from her loveless rearing. Pretty funny stuff.

In the climactic scene, Bella confronts her mother about her desire to lead a more normal, independent life. During the confrontation, we are exposed to a part of Bella's history we've never seen--important information that, if revealed earlier through the normal course of the play, would help create an effective dramatic exchange instead of merely an unexpected outpouring of pain.

Theater Works' production of this piece does not make it any easier for the patrons. Director Lisa Fineberg Malone moves the play along at a healthy clip and produces some nice pictures onstage with her active blocking, but these assets do not make up for some apparently poor casting choices.

Two of the Valley's most accomplished actresses, Robyn Allen as Bella and Pauline Borjes as Grandma Kurnitz, seem out of place in this show. Allen has trouble finding the middle ground for Bella, as her characterization moves from imbecile child to powerful woman in a heartbeat. Borjes, who shone as French Fries in St. George Productions' Talking With, is too wisely calm to be the fearsome grandmother; she comes across as more of a nuisance than a threat. In the role of Eddie, Ron Hunting seems uneasy as he presents a nervous, one-dimensional father.

Philip Dawkins, who was hauntingly effective in Theater Works' summer production of The Diviners, is spectacular as Jay. This youngster has talent beyond his years and a presence that overshadows most of the adults around him. His comic timing and perfect facial expressions find humor at every turn. As his brother, Arty, Jason Wo is cute enough, but Wo shoulders a heavy burden in keeping up with Dawkins. Greg Santos, who seems to get better with each acting assignment, sparkles as Louie, Eddie's gangster brother. When Santos is onstage, the energy level receives a much-needed boost. Gert, a difficult role vocally, is handled competently by Ginny Harman, who gets a laugh every time she opens her mouth.

Set designer Gregory Jaye has turned out to be quite a find for the technical end of Theater Works' productions. He gives the performers a remarkably realistic stage on which to work. The brickwork is wonderful, and Jaye has even put store awnings along the outside wall to indicate the height of this second-story flat.

Theater Works has presented quality productions in Glendale for eight years. I had hoped it could close this chapter of its history with a production that lives up to its well-deserved reputation. But Lost in Yonkers loses the audience as both the play and the performances are lost in genres.

Lost in Yonkers continues through Sunday, December 3, at Theater Works, 6615 West Thunderbird in Glendale. For more details, seeTheatre listing in Thrills.

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Gerald Thomson