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Review: 'Lost in Yonkers' at La Mirada Theatre

February 10, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Lost_in_yonkers_2Say what you will about Neil Simon’s penchant for shtick — he knows how to start a play. “Lost in Yonkers,” his 1991 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning show, now running at La Mirada's Theatre for the Performing Arts, opens with two boys sweating in their stiff Sunday best. Jay (Aaron Albert) and Arty (Austyn Myers) wait as their father (Evan Arnold) negotiates in the next room with tyrannical Grandma Kurnitz (Jayne Taini). A loan shark’s after Pops for unpaid loans. But he’s more afraid of his mother.

The boys are about to get a life lesson in debt — financial and emotional — as they become temporary residents of the Kurnitz household and employees at Grandma’s downstairs candy store. They share said incarceration with their Aunt Bella (Michelle Azar), an excitable child-like naïf with attention deficit issues. As Jay puts it, pointing to his head: “She’s a little — you know — closed for repairs.” The boys will discover that everyone in the family has been damaged by Grandma’s stone-cold intimidation tactics. But Bella has fallen in love. And she’s starting to think, and feel, for herself.

Set in 1942, “Yonkers” is old-school stuff, played here with brisk, unpretentious charm on John Iacovelli’s comfy set of antimacassars and chintz print armchairs. Director Jeff Maynard expertly conjures a world of soda jerks, suspenders and New York patter. “Ma could tell if there was salt missin’ from a pretzel,” muses Grandma’s other son, Louie (Kevin Weisman), somewhat of an expert in theft himself.

As the teenage brothers, Albert and Myers are funny and sly, landing Simon’s jokes with delight and capturing the way kids instantly absorb adult rules without understanding their (twisted) logic. But the play is Bella’s, and Azar offers a vibrant, moving portrait of a soul caught between childhood fear and womanly desire. Fragile and exuberant, Azar never asks for the audience’s sympathy and thereby wins it in droves. Hers is a beautifully calibrated performance, giving the evening much-needed warmth. Taini, a naturally poised actress, is less at home in the role of Grandma Kurnitz. More contained than controlling, she suggests a deposed royal instead of a working-class immigrant. Grandma’s back story involves being crippled by an anti-Semitic policeman back in Germany, but the full brunt of that brutality is never quite evoked in this production.

And for all its domestic operatics, “Yonkers” is curiously static. The boys’ presence in the house never really impacts the other characters’ decisions, so Bella’s declaration of independence toward the end of the play doesn’t feel generated by anything we’ve been watching. Still, as a depiction of a family struggling with old wounds of racism and exile, Simon’s dramedy is a bittersweet fable of how to grow up in, and out of, your family.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Lost in Yonkers,” La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Ave., La Mirada. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 22. $40-$48. (562) 944-9801. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Austyn Myers, left, Michelle Azar and Aaron Albert in "Lost in Yonkers" at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Credit: Michael Lamont