Theater review: 'Lost in Yonkers' at the Old Globe
More drama than comedy, this depiction of a forever-under-pressure family unfolds as a series of showdowns, the first of which builds from a low buzz of anxiety toward an aria of chastisement, delivered by a steely grandma. That crescendo is performed here by a cast that includes Judy Kaye, widely admired for her portrayals of Carlotta in "The Phantom of the Opera" and Florence Foster Jenkins in "Souvenir," directed by Scott Schwartz, best known for his stagings of such musicals as "Bat Boy" and "tick, tick … BOOM!"
Theatergoers' initial exposure to "Yonkers," the most-awarded of Simon's plays, likely was in a large theater, but this piece, with its seven emotionally churning characters, benefits from being presented in a place where audience members can see the actors' nuances. As the first production in the Globe's new 250-seat, in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (replacing its similarly configured Cassius Carter Centre Stage), the play is granted that intimacy.
Set in the early 1940s, the story unfolds in the grandma's fussy, old-fashioned apartment above the family-run sweet shop in Yonkers, N.Y. Outfitted with a below-stage pit that the previous theater didn't have, the new facility allows for an interior stairwell in Ralph Funicello's richly detailed set, so that Grandma's ominous ascensions from the shop actually are made from that direction.
Kaye has the plum role as the matriarch who unwillingly houses her grandsons, ages 15 and 13, while their recently widowed father travels for work. A lifetime of hardship has taught Grandma to be strong just to survive. Kaye conveys this unbending nature in everything from her ramrod posture, which stubbornly resists the curving of age, to the sour look on her face as she accepts the grandchildren's kisses out of obligation rather than pleasure.
A sprightly, comic counterbalance is provided by Steven Kaplan and Austyn Myers as the grandsons whose squabbling but tightly knit dynamic echoes Simon's own relationship with his older comedy-writer brother, Danny.
Other characters embody a hodgepodge of eccentricities. Nearly believable yet determinedly larger than life, they tend to kneecap any production of "Yonkers." Simon may have received his only Pulitzer for this 1991 play, but the writing here isn't his best. Even artists with an ear for the play's musicality are bound to lose pitch now and again.
Above: Steven Kaplan as Jay, Austyn Myers as Arty and Judy Kaye as Grandma Kurnitz. Credit: Photo by Craig Schwartz
"Lost in Yonkers," the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 28. $29-$62. (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.