By Robert W. Bethune
There are two versions of Neil Simon. One is the rapid-fire wisecracker of “The Odd Couple,” the other is the comic, yet serious writer of “Lost in Yonkers,” currently in production at the Blackbird Theatre. Both versions have something in common: caring about people, especially caring about family.
Two children are at the heart of the play. Jay, played by Scott Crandall, is 15, old enough to figure out whatever the adults don’t want to tell him. Arty, played with charming smart-aleck energy by Sabra Satz-Kojis, is 11, and smart enough to figure these things out, usually quicker than Jay. Arty gets most of the best Neil Simon-style wisecracks, and Satz-Kojis makes the most of them.
After the death of their mother, these children find themselves living with their grandmother, played with rock-hard bitterness by Linda Hammell, while their father, Eddie, played with characteristic warmth by Carl Hanna, tries to earn enough money as a traveling scrap-iron seller to pay for the family’s debts. Grandma is not fun, but brother, is she an education. For better and for worse, she is absolutely the center of gravity, the point of reference for the whole family – a role in which she does great good and great damage. Education of a different kind comes from Louie, Eddie’s brother, a mob bagman, played with Mafioso bravado by Oliver Darrow. The play, however, turns on Bella, Eddie’s sister, who is mentally not quite an adult, but not quite a child, more than a girl and slowly learning to be a woman. Rebecca Staffend’s performance in this role gives the production its core.
Despite an ending that is not at all convincing, it is clear that everyone survives, and that’s the point Simon is trying to make – that we can get through the rough spots if we love hard enough. I don’t believe his characters get off nearly as scot-free as he wants us to believe. He does not resolve his issues, he papers them over. The final scene seems to come from a different play, as if he had a standard Broadway comedy in his desk drawer and pulled this scene out of it, tacking it on to the end of a riveting family drama-with-laughter.
Lynch Travis’ direction gets excellent performances from the cast, but leaves something to be desired in pace and staging. The play certainly should not be frenetic, but this production feels loose and slow; the one-hour first act on opening night felt like an hour and a half. I don’t follow his logic on accents; Grandma and Eddie have them, the rest don’t.
The design effort is bare-bones. There are suggestions of the World War II period, effectively nullified by pretty plainly out-of-period props and furniture. Louie’s gun is a joke; he’s carry very serious mob money, and double-crossing the mob to boot. He would carry a serious weapon. Lighting consists of simple illumination. While the play does not absolutely need much design – one of Simon’s strong points – it would benefit from an effective evocation of time and place, which is not fully realized in this production.
‘Lost in Yonkers’
Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor. Fri.-Sat., through April 26. Tickets: $20. For information: 734-332-3848 or http://www.blackbirdtheatre.org