by Beki Pineda
LOST IN YONKERS – Written by Neil Simon; Directed by Warren Sherrill. Produced by Miners Alley Playhouse (1224 Washington, Golden) through March 3. Tickets available at 303-935-3044 or minersalley.com.
It’s a well known fact that Neil Simon drew from his painful early years and personal experiences for many of his plays. The Eugene trilogy chronicles his teen years and parent’s break up in Brighton Beach, his training and service in the Army Air Force Reserve, and his beginnings as a comic writer on radio and TV. It’s also documented that, when his parents split, he and his older brother were often sent to live with family relatives. So it’s reasonable that the time documented in LOST IN YONKERS is also based on a personal experience of being a boy abandoned and scared in a strange place. What is hard to find out is was his father’s mother really as domineering as she is portrayed? Did he really have an autistic aunt? Was his uncle a bag man for the mob in New York? In order to bring these characters to such glorious fruition, he must have at least known people who were somewhat like these unforgettable characters.
And there you have the basic plot. Father has to go on the road for a job and leaves his two sons with his scary mother and disturbed sister. The boys – who have natural wit and have learned that humor is a great defense mechanism – bond over a common enemy and try to make the best of a bad situation. Much to the audience’s delight. This is typical Simon – an ensemble of characters thrown together who survive by their wits and innate good nature in a painful comedy full of zingers. He gives his audience real life from a grim point of view, covered with laughter. He said once that he wanted his audiences to fall out of their chairs laughing. However, the tugs he gives to our heartstrings often bring tears of another kind.
Miners Alley knows how to do Simon. They have had very successful productions of a number of the 34 scripts he leaves behind (including two rewrites of THE ODD COUPLE). They put this production in the very able hands of Warren Sherrill and said, “Have fun.” And he and the cast did. Denver Grande Dame Deborah Persoff, a gentle and loving person in real life, breaks out her best Mrs. Danvers to totally intimidate her entire family including her new young charges. After the horrible description of her character given the boys by their father, you expect her grand entrance to be announced by trumpets and a cannon spray of black glitter. She is described by her son Louie as having “eyes like two DA’s” and, in spite of everything, remains crusty to the end. She has controlled, manipulated and ruined the life of her childlike but lovable daughter, Bella, played with astonishing authenticity by Haley Johnson. Her stammering fearful characterization is painful and funny all at the same time. She is forceful only in protection of those she deems needy and in her inability to change her mental pictures of how certain things are going to happen. Her innocence gives her the right to be honest; her lack of filters gives her the opportunity to tell the truth; her joy in the simple and familiar in life brings her and her audience great happiness.
The boys in the center of the drama are given life by Ben Feldman as the younger Arty (or Arthur as his grandmother insists on calling him) and Dee Jimenez as Jay, his three year older brother. The “We’re both in the same boat” camaraderie and competition between the two is a delight to behold. Arty’s toe to toe with Grandma over the medicinal mustard soup she doles out earns her begrudging respect. His slower speech pattern illustrates his confusion and dismay over what has happened to them both. Jay (or Jacob a la Grandma) is full of teenage energy and frustration. He wants to find his grandmother’s hidden treasure and get his family back together again and away from this toxic environment. They both love their Aunt Bella and appreciate all she has done for them, but can’t understand this bewildering world they find themselves in.
A breath of fresh air arrives with Uncle Louie portrayed by a slicked back and sharpened Damon Guerrasio. You can see Jay growing up to be like Uncle Louie while Arty will always be more subdued and thoughtful like his father. Louie arrives carrying a mysterious black bag and gives the boys a clear look into the family life back when he and Eddie, his brother, lived with their mother in this house. He is on the run from a couple of mob hotshots that are trying to recover whatever is in the bag, breezing in and out quickly, just long enough to befriend and impress the boys with his derring-do. Rory Pierce plays Eddie, the boy’s father and a grieving widower who has to take a job on the road to pay his wife’s medical bills despite his own health problems. He is torn by his need to made a decision that will put his boys in this place at this time with this woman who he has never been allowed to love. Rory brings his loving but long-suffering persona to life once again. The final cast member is the last sister of the family, Aunt Gert, played with breathless anxiety by MacKenzie Beyer. Her short but meaningful appearance gives testimony to the long lasting effects of an abusive childhood.
The technical team at Miners once again brings their collective talent to the forefront in support of the production. Mr. Simon would be proud of you all.
A WOW factor of 9!!