Directed by Gary Gisselman
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
Roxanne: So far this is the best thing I have seen at the Guthrie this year. Though the Guthrie itself was still every bit as much of a maze as it was the first time we went, the quality of the show made up for the inconvenience of having to, once again, find the way down, out, and to the nearest bathroom. I will say, however, that the Guthrie has plenty of helpful staff on board, ready to escort you, should you have no idea which theatre you are headed to (there are now three stages to choose from, often with two shows happening simultaneously, so it is a bit like being at the airport when the intercom broadcasts that shows A and B will both be taking off from their appointed stages in ten minutes.) I have come to view the helpful Guthrie volunteers as a kinder, gentler TSA, being that the experience is a lot like being at the airport. For me, the airport metaphor works just fine, an escapist addition to the whole play-going experience. After all, we are supposed to be leaving our own worries behind for the evening so as to enter someone else’s worries for the night, yes?
In Neil Simon’s widely acclaimed—Pulitzer winning acclaimed—Lost in Yonkers, we are certainly able to check our own worries at the door, at least to a certain extent. If you are Jewish, have issues with your mother, or were ever left for long periods of time in the hands of a scary babysitter as a child, than this production will inevitably trigger a few personal feelings, if not questions about your own upbringing and family dramas. But not for too long, as the pacing of the play manages to clip through acts one and two without much lollygagging. Lost in Yonkers is not an introspective play, not one that affords much time to go internal and process all the dysfunction thickening on stage, scene after scene, before coming to a nice, satisfying, ending where everything and nothing has changed. All the same, the play is comforting if you have ever felt alone in your family’s dysfunction. I was drawn to the play due to its being billed as a story about “ what happens to children growing up without the nurturing guidance of parental love and care,” something which is all too familiar to my life’s story and something artistically I can never get enough of. Immediately the juxtaposition is strong, when the two central characters, ostensibly well adjusted American children are temporarily taken away from the “normal” care of loving parents and turned over to the proverbial other half—the quirky half that everyone always talks about—of the family, which is what happens to 13 year old Arty (Dylan Frederick) and his 15 year old brother Jay (Noah Madoff). The young brothers recently lost their mother to cancer and as a result must spend close to a year with their evil and stoic grandmother (Rosaleen Linehan) and her sub-functional daughter, Bella (Finnerty Steeves), her gangster brother Louie, (Stephen Pelinski), and asthmatic sister, Gert (Suzanne Warmanen), while their loving, but spineless father (Michael Booth) earns back the money he lost paying for his sick wife’s care by traveling around the country by train in order to save enough to repay the “shylock” and come home. The story takes place in 1942 in Grandma Kurnitz’s apartment home above the family run candy store; once the boys are settled into their new home, the ensuing events revolve around the controlling Grandma Kurnitz like a maypole, the characters flung this way and that according to her monstrous, ever predictable wishes. Kids in a candy store, sadly these boys are not. At once they are terrified of living with grandma, though it is hard to tell if it is because every one else is so afraid of her or if she is really indeed the monster that everyone portrays her to be. And though we all cringe when we see her coming into the scene with her cane dragging behind her like a delayed heartbeat, we can’t help but feel sorry for her constant and lifelong need to suppress her pain. We get her. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we don’t find deep satisfaction every time one of her kids (or grandkids) stands up to her, as they surely all do, trembling, at one time or another. Grandma’s back story: Germanic Jewish, trauma, taught never to show pain. How that translates to the family is manifest in the cast of characters with varying levels of neurosis, all whom manipulate the story with both humor and realism.
All of the actors received a standing ovation, which I believe was much earned. I can see why. I’m not an actor, but I think playing any one of these characters would be deeply gratifying for a number of reasons. Many of us can likely see shades of ourselves in these lost, yet trying to make sense of the world as best they can when so much of that world has been navigated without l genuine love and affection.
While I am no expert on stage sets, this was also one of the best uses of space I have ever seen at The Guthrie. Set designer John Arnone has performed great feng shui with the stage, lopping off nearly half of it, (at least in comparison to the stage we saw for The Great Gatsby) in order to create an intimate living room setting, with a hallway leading back into Grandma’s scary room, a dining room with windows and a front porch, with stairs descending into the candy store in the back of the room.
David: Well, having the load of exposition lightened considerably by Roxanne, I feel free to fling my frivolous—whatever. This was an overdue affirmation of the Guthrie’s ability to get it right. After the lukewarm “Gatsby” and “The Real Thing”, not to mention all the fanfare over the new building (I hesitate to call it a “theatre”) and the restaurants not to mention the escalators, this production puts aside all the fiddling around with the sets and the affectations of innovation that encumbered the earlier offerings and just puts on a show. So I can only re-affirm my co-reviewer’s statements; yes, the acting was superb and the set, perfection. Now if they could only find something new to say with it all. I guess it’s somewhere in the Guthrie’s mission statement that they bring live theatre to the masses, never mind that there must be a hundred or more theatre companies in the Twin Cities area hell-bent on the same goal. So, given that they have this amazing - albeit badly designed- facility, maybe they could go one better than cranking up the old record player and encouraging us all to sing along to…Neil Simon? This quasi-serious piece of self-indulgence belongs in dinner theatre, and only the outstanding performances and the wonderful production values save the script from total clich_(c)-ridden banality, Pulitzer and all. I keep hoping the Guthrie will shift its new, big blue arse and maybe stretch a little, artistically. But then they’ve got bills to pay, in that theatre factory by the river.