Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 8
Tickets: $25-$75, students $15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I’ve seen lots of productions of Neil Simon played for laughs. Northlight Theatre’s “Lost in Yonkers” isn’t one of them.
Sure, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in 1942 follows a familiar Simon formula, peppered as it is with one-liners intended to get a rise out of the audience. And the coming-of-age tale taps into the playwright’s penchant for mixing comedy with poignancy.
But in the hands of director Devon de Mayo and her talented ensemble, the seriousness of the situation prevails, the potential for tragedy overwhelms the humor, and the focus shifts from the teenage brothers presumably at the center to their beleaguered Aunt Bella.
The prolonged setup is pure Simon, however. We first see the boys, 15 1/2-year-old Jay (Alistair Sewell) and 13 1/2-year old Arty (Sebastian W. Weigman), in the impeccably neat Yonker’s living room of their Grandma (Ann Whitney) on a hot summer day. They discuss why they hate being there, the peculiarities of relatives on their father’s side, and how they can’t wait for their dad, Eddie (Timothy Edward Kane), to take them home. Periodically he emerges from Grandma’s room, obviously stressed and frightened for his mother, mopping his brow, and admonishing them to straighten their collars, keep their heads and feet off the furniture, and be on their best behavior when she comes to talk to them. Aunt Bella (Linsey Page Morton), who lives with Grandma, also arrives and is delighted to see her nephews, though she’s somewhat addled about just about everything.
Eventually Eddie spills the beans to his sons about why they are there. Deeply in debt to a loan shark for the money to treat his deceased wife’s cancer, he plans to earn it quickly by selling scrap metal in the South for the war effort. He’s asked Grandma to take them in for the 10 months that he’ll be gone.
When she finally enters, walking with a cane for her back pain, her response is a firm “no.” A German immigrant whose tough life has left her hard as nails, angry and bitter, she’s terrorized her four surviving children and has no intention of softening. Cross-examining the deferential boys, who are eager to help their father but loathe to live with Grandma, doesn’t change her mind. Only Bella’s insistence that she’ll take care of Jay and Arty turns the tide.
The rest of the evening, punctuated by letters from and to Eddie during his ups and downs on the road, is fairly predictable. Put to work in Grandma’s candy shop/soda fountain downstairs, the boys learn just how mean, devious and relentless the old woman can be in her determination to make them self-reliant. They also find out that their Uncle Louie (Erik Hellman), who reacted to his mother by becoming a crook and is on the run for unexplained reasons, isn’t as glamorous or worth emulating as he at first seems. In short, they grow up.
That — and economic issues that resonate today — would be the sum of it if not for one thing: Morton’s heart-breaking, gut-wrenching performance as Bella. Damaged by childhood scarlet fever, Bella has been treated by her mother as a combination of slave and child. Deprived of love and cowed by threats of being taken to the dreaded “home,” she’s nonetheless become aware of being a woman and longs for affection. Then she falls for an usher she meets on her frequent trips to the movies, and he for her, but she’s so scared to tell Grandma, she gathers the whole family for dinner to get some support. Her efforts are less than successful, as is the relationship, but she finds the strength to leave — even if it’s only to go to her sister Gert’s (Anne Fogarty) house.
Morton makes all this palpable and, as a result, she’s the one whose coming of age really matters to us in this “Lost in Yonkers.” And in standing up for herself, she also affects Grandma, who doesn’t exactly change but does reveal the reasons for her lifelong coldness.
While de Mayo doesn’t integrate the comedy and tragedy as well as she could, and some of the conversations drag, Whitney is nearly perfect as Grandma, hiding her feelings beneath a stern, disapproving, unsmiling exterior. Hellman brings a real sense of danger and menace to Louie, rather than falling into the cartoon-gangster traps. And Kane is so good as the weak but well-meaning Eddie, it’s hard to believe he’s the same actor who was the poet in “An Iliad” at Court Theatre.
Despite a malfunctioning prop on opening night and the odd decision to have the apartment’s front door be offstage, Grant Sabin’s scenic design is workmanlike, as are Lee Keenan’s lighting, Rachel Laritz’s costumes, and Nick Keenan’s sound design.
My guess is that “Lost in Yonkers” will be a hit with Northlight audiences, and it’s worth the trip for the acting — and possibly to make you feel better about your own family’s level of dysfunction.