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Lost in Yonkers

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Clichéd and corny, square and safe, Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers has found itself the inaugural production on the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Despite its dated style and old-fashioned humor, this Pulitzer prize-winning comedy by one of America's favorite playwrights still offers a surprise or two, and it has not lost its way to Chuckletown.

Credit for that belongs to a superb cast, especially the two young men playing the lead roles, and Scott Schwartz's capable direction. Bringing this old warhorse to renewed life as a lively trotter could not have been an easy task on the White's diminutive, theatre-in-the-round stage, but the production does not suffer from the lack of space.

Ralph Funicello's scenic design replicates the 1940s living room of a middle class Jewish family home with a staircase to the unseen, family-owned candy store below. The staging takes advantage of the aisles, which resemble spokes from the central stage that lead to the exterior tunnel-like corridor "wheel," to allow exits and entrances that stretch out the action.

Not that there is a lot of action in this Simon-typical talky play. The story showcases a family in flux, turned inside out by financial and bereavement disruptions, leaving all its dysfunctions showing. Two adolescent brothers, Arty and Jay, must come to live with their controlling and humorless Grandma Kurnitz while their erstwhile father Eddie travels the country selling scrap metal to earn the money to pay back the thousands he borrowed from the mob. With their mother recently dead of the cancer that racked up the medical bills necessitating the ill-conceived loan, the boys have no choice but to adapt.

Making it somewhat easier for them are their odd aunts, the child-like Bella and the speech-afflicted Gert, and their uncle Louie, a small-time hood. The characters are caricatures, typical of this playwright's brand of comedy, but the exaggeration creates easy understanding.

Convincingly, even frighteningly, played by Tony-award winner, Judy Kaye, Grandma Kurnitz is a mean old lady. She thumps around, dragging one foot like Quasimodo and stomping her cane menacingly, and she makes it quite clear that her grandsons are not welcome guests but undesirable obligations. (What is it with the Globe's current season of plays featuring such unpleasant old women as this Grandma and Lilly of the currently running Whisper House?) Justified in the script as a product of war-torn Germany and its Darwinian survival of the fittest culture, Grandma's callous nature denies love, for herself and everyone else.

She makes Eddie (adroitly played as a nervous nebbish by Spencer Rowe) her youngest son and a new widower beg for refuge for his two boys. She terrorizes Gert (a hilarious and deft Amanda Naughton), whose asthmatic wheeze is the symptom of stress born of a very unpleasant life, but it makes for some of the play's funniest moments.

Ironically, it is the least capable family member, the simple-minded but exuberantly weird Bella, who manages to win the life she wants. Jennifer Regan nearly steals the show with her Carol Burnett interpretation of the dingy aunt, delicately balancing the comedy with pathos and sensitivity.

Fortunately, Steven Kaplan (as Jay) and Austyn Myers (as little brother Arty) are accomplished beyond their years, quite up to the tasks of their respective roles. Kaplan plays the older, quieter, perhaps wiser brother without letting him disappear among the play's wildly excited characters. He shows Jay's strength and sensitivity, yet makes his several angry flare-ups rise naturally rather than melodramatically.

There is drama enough in Arty's character, and the perfectly cast Myers handles his cheeky charm with adorable aplomb. Arty is the kid who instinctively understands how to play up to each family member, and he may win over even his reluctant grandmother. Myers could be that kid, so adept is he at the role.

Louie (Jeffrey M. Bender) was once like Arty, but life and his angry mother have made him cynical, at times emotionally abusive. Bender's interpretation contains too much yelling. If he were to temper that bellowing somewhat, Louie would have as much depth throughout as he has in the (best and funniest) scene where the entire family has gathered to hear Bella's unexpected news.

This is not a deep play. It is a somewhat simple play. But it has its charm and funny moments, and the actors make a visit to the old neighborhood worthwhile.

Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" runs through February 28 on the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre stage in San Diego's Balboa Park. Show times: Tues-Weds at 7 pm; Thurs-Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 7 pm. Sat & Sun matinees at 2 pm. Tickets: $29-62, with discounts for full-time students, patrons 29 year of age and younger, seniors and groups of 10 or more. Reservations: www.TheOldGlobe.org or phone (619) 23-GLOBE.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.