Review: Lost in Yonkers (Northlight Theatre)

| May 25, 2014
Alistair Sewell and Sebastian Weigman star in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
      
Lost in Yonkers

Written by Neil Simon 
Directed by Devon de Mayo
at North Shore Center for the Arts, Skokie (map)
thru June 8  |  tickets: $25-$75   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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A perfect production of an American classic

     

Ann Whitney, Sebastian Weigman and Alistair Sewell in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

    
Northlight Theatre presents
    
Lost in Yonkers

Review by John Olson

The play won just about every award imaginable when it premiered on Broadway back in 1991 – multiple Tonys and Drama Desks – even the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. So why haven’t we had a professional production in Chicago in recent years? I’d guess because of the difficulty casting the two leads – a pair of brothers age 13-1/2 and 15-1/2. Getting kid actors in that age range who can hold the stage in the midst of adult professionals has to be daunting. Director Devon de Mayo went up to Wisconsin to find her two boy actors – Alistair Sewell and Sebastian W. Wingman – and though they’re the only two non-Equity performers in this cast of distinguished Chicago actors they are as entertaining, watchable and likable as any old pros. In the midst of a cast that is largely classically trained and working frequently at our most prestigious regional non-profit theaters, the boys and their characters are at the center of this very funny and very moving Neil Simon dramedy. I’d never seen Neil Simon’s play before, or its movie version, but I can’t imagine it being played any more effectively than it is here.

Sebastian Weigman, Alistair Sewell and Timothy Edward Kane in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)Simon’s story, set during World War II, concerns New York brothers Arty and Jay, who must move in with their stern and cold grandmother in neighboring Yonkers when their recently widowed father has to take a job as a travelling salesman to pay off debts he incurred during his wife’s terminal illness. The father, Eddie (Timothy Edward Kane), has been distant though not entirely estranged from his severe and cold mother (Ann Whitney), a German-Jewish refugee who stingily runs a sweet shop below her apartment in Yonkers. (Her practices of strict portion control remind me of stories I’ve heard about my grandfather, who ran a Milwaukee neighborhood grocery store during the Depression). The Grandmother terrorizes daughter Bella, (Linsey Page Morton), who has an unspecified mental disability, though she’s functional, and lives with their mother. Two other siblings have partially escaped her clutches. Louie (Erik Hellman) is a small-time hoodlum who pops in later in the play, and another sister, Gert (Anne Fogarty) has her own place, but nearby in Yonkers, where she’s not entirely out of the control of her mother.

The story’s arc is predictable and arrives at a happy ending, but Simon takes no easy roads to get there. Amidst his many laughs is a lot of pain laid bare. Arty and Jay get most of the funny lines, which in typical Simon fashion are never mean but always astute. As in Simon’s earlier Brighton Beach Memoirs, which also centered on a 13-year-old boy and his older brother, the kids have a way of seeing the illogical twists of adult thinking. The kids see life through a simpler lens – one not influenced by the compromises and politics of adult relationships that get us grown-ups tangled in knots and lost. Sewell and Wingman show perfect timing and a natural charm that make them engaging guides through the story. Kane, one of Chicago’s most respected classical actors, has the smaller but pivotal role of the boys’ father, Eddie. He gives a nuanced performance, communicating grief at loss of his wife, outright fear of his domineering mother, anxiety over his need to pay back the loan shark who lends him the money for his late wife’s medical expense and love for the boys.

Sebastian Weigman, Linsey Morton and Alistair Sewell in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow) Linsey Page Morton and Ann Whitney in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)Erik Hellman, Alistair Sewell and Sebastian Weigman in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow) Sebastian Weigman and Ann Whitney in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Eddie’s sister Bella gets confused, forgets things, gets lost and has a childlike nature even though she’s quite functional. Morton brings all these qualities to her character. She touchingly shows us a Bella who does not fit neatly into any of our preconceptions of developmental disability. Bella is smart enough to recognize her disabilities and is frustrated by her inability to overcome them. She has warmth and a great capacity for love. When she becomes involved with a similarly disabled man who works as a movie usher, Bella becomes determined to have an adult romantic relationship – leading her to finally challenge her mother. Whitney is the icy grandmother, whose sternness comes from a belief that she must prepare her children and grandchildren for a harsh world, but she takes that strictness to a place bordering on abuse of an emotional, and in the past, physical nature. Perhaps her biggest failure is Louie, now working as a bag man for a gangster and when he arrives unexpectedly at the apartment, Louie’s on the run from him. It’s not as nuanced a role as the others, but it’s a good one – good enough to have won a Tony for Kevin Spacey when he originated the part in 1991. Hellman perfectly captures Louie as a small-time hood – neither as tough nor as shrewd as he’d like others to believe. He thinks he can fool the boys, though they quickly see through him. Fogarty is delightful in her small but entertaining role as the sister Gert – a nervous sort with a tic in which she inhales while speaking the ends of her sentences.

The characters all grow in Lost in Yonkers, but credibly so. As expected, the boys melt the icy grandmother, but only so far. Bella takes steps toward independence and Eddie becomes just a bit more assertive. Louie finds a solution to his problems with the gangster that offers some hope. Lost in Yonkers is a seemingly simple play that skillfully weaves together a number of themes – reliance on family during hard times, the challenges and necessary sacrifices of the Depression and War eras, and our attitudes toward the developmentally disabled. Simon covers all this in a way that is as funny and hopeful as it is honest. de Mayo has executed it with a perfect cast and performances in a production that affirms the accolades of those awards judges over 20 years ago.

  
Rating: ★★★★
  
   

Lost in Yonkers continues through June 8th at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm and 7pm.  Tickets are $25-$75, and are available by phone (847-673-6300) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Northlight.org(Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)

Alistair Sewell, Timothy Edward Kane and Sebastian Weigman in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 


     

artists

cast

Anne Fogarty (Gert), Erik Hellman (Louie), Timothy Edward Kane (Eddie), Linsey Page Morton (Bella), Alistair Sewell (Jay), Sebastian W. Weigman (Arty), Ann Whitney (Grandma Kurnitz).

behind the scenes

Devon de Mayo (director), Grant Sabin (scenic design), Lee Keenan (lighting design), Nick Keenan (sound design), Rita Vreeland (production stage manager), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Stage Channel (video), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Linsey Morton, Sebastian Weigman and Alistair Sewell star in Northlight Theatre's "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, John Olson, Neil Simon, North Shore Center for the Arts, Northlight Theatre, Video, YouTube

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