'Lost In Yonkers' Finds Best Of Simon

Most theater-goers, movie and TV fans know Neil Simon for his fast-paced comedies, filled with sharp one-liners and frequently bumbling characters.

“Lost in Yonkers,” the Simon play which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Theatre is not one of these.

Not that there is a lack of typical Simon humor, but it is blended with deeply touching character studies and frequently painful reality. As one character in another playwright’s comedy declared “Laughter through tears is my favorite kind.”

There is a great deal of that in “Yonkers” where teenage brothers Arty (Noah Hickey) and Jay (Noah Johnson) Kurnitz are brought by recently widowed father Eddie (Casey St.Aubin) to stay with their Grandma Kurnitz (Mary Ann Moran) while he takes a traveling job to pay off loan shark debts incurred during his wife’s illness.

Grandma Kurnitz is a grim, strict survivor of Nazi Germany and the unrelenting struggle to survive in a new country with a large family. Sympathy, empathy, understanding and forgiveness are not in her vocabulary.

Lost in Yonkers  South Bend IN Civic TheatreTo say the boys are unhappy is putting it mildly.

The only bright spot in the Yonkers household is their Aunt Bella (Crystal Ryan), a mentally challenged 35-year-old given to emotional outbursts. She is their ally in spite of sharing a fear of Grandma Kurnitz.

Into the mix creeps (literally) another relative, Uncle Louie (Tucker Curtis), a bag man hiding himself and his little black bag from the mob. He stirs the boys’ imaginations of life on the wild side and tells them how he survived his mother’s severe punishments and is the only one of his siblings who is not afraid of her.

This includes the Aunt Gert (April Sellers) whose vocal anomaly is the remnant of her traumatic childhood.

Put them all together and it is difficult to say which is the most lost. Only Jay and Arty leave Yonkers with a real chance of survival.

Lost in Yonkers  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreUnder the direction of Scot Shepley, the actors bring each of the strikingly individual characters believeably to life. The boys are typical brothers, baiting each other yet solidly together if one is the object of adult scrutiny. As the older, Johnson takes the lead in their daily life adventures, and his frustration is increasingly obvious. Hickey is the sometimes unwilling follower. His soup showdown with Grandma is familiarly hilarious.

Lost in Yonkers  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreRyan’s Bella is both the victim and the heroine of this Yonkers household. A positive persona in spite of her handicap, she deals with her limitations and accepts the disintegration of her dream, emerging as a surprising survivor.

Curtis brings a blast of energy to the suffocating atmosphere, albeit the energy is primarily bravado. He is the sibling who left in order to live and who, finally, warns his nephews of the danger in repeating his choices.

St. Aubin gathers strength as his character deals with illness and work on the road, returning at last to find a way out for himself and his sons.

As Grandma Kurnitz, Moran is unyielding, ruling her fractured household with an iron grip which today would definitely be described as abusive. It is not important that her grandsons like her, she declares. It is only important that they live. Alone at last, whether or not she will remain so is left to the individual .

Set, costumes and props all work well to recreate a typical middleclass apartment in the 1940s. Love the sofa antimacasars! Wigs are not as successful, however, especially Moran’s iron braid.

It is said that all of Simon’s plays are at least in some degree related to his own life. In 1991, “Lost in Yonkers” earned him the last of his three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Obviously Grandma was right.

“LOST IN YONKERS” plays through Jan. 25 in the SBCT Warner Theatre. For performance dates, times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

'The Odd Couple' Going Strong At 50

Opposites may attract, but not for long as the increasingly combative protagonists of Neil Simon’s comedy “The Odd Couple” quickly discover.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House under the direction of Karen Johnston marks the 50th anniversary of Simon’s first Tony Award-winning play.

The love/hate relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison obviously is one that never grows old. It began on Broadway in 1965, moved to film in 1968, segued easily to TV from 1970 to ’75 and will return to the small screen in the upcoming season.

The set design by John Shoup goes from trashed to immaculate with the flick of a duster. Along with the costumes coordinated by Shoup and Dawn Blessing, it easily evokes an earlier era when an eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive could serve as a bachelor pad.

The Odd Couple Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INOscar is played here by Carl Wiesinger, complete with bristling mustache, Hawaiian shirt, baseball cap, ever-present cigar and belligerent attitude. A sports writer with a careless lifestyle, the character is said to be the prototype for Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch. Both live contentedly in less than sanitary environments.

Into this unkempt atmosphere comes his best friend Felix, a buttoned-up, buttoned-down hypochondriac news writer played with persnickety persistence by Dave Kempher. Oscar is divorced and Felix, recently separated from his home and family. Convinced that his large apartment holds plenty of room for them both, Oscar invites a distraught Felix to room with him — temporarily.

In a very short while, fastidious Felix has moved in and cleaned up everything in sight, putting a definite damper on Oscar’s lifestyle and on the weekly poker game.

As the players — Murray the cop (Patrick Farran), allergic accountant Roy (Zach Rivers), henpecked Vinnie (Roy Carlson) and sarcastic Speed (Bob Franklin) — grow disenchantd with Felix’ persistent housekeeping (napkins, coasters, ashtrays, air spray), they quit the game, leaving Oscar to deal with his now-unwelcome houseguest.

The Odd Couple Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INThe final straw comes in the person of the Pigeon sisters. Upstairs neighbors Cecily, a divorcee (assistant director Carrie Lee), and Gwendolyn, a widow (Elise Davis), are invited to dinner by Oscar over Felix’ objections. They are immediately sympathetic to the weeping Felix, ruining Oscar’s less-than-platonic plans for the evening.

The third of playwright Simon’s comedies, “The Odd Couple” depends on broad characterizations and snappy one-liners for its fast-paced humor. Timing is definitely the prerequisite here.

There is an old saying, attributable over the years to several famous performers, that “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” On opening night, the truth of this was often apparent.

In spite of the frequently stop/start rhythm, however, audience members who braved the decidedly inclement weather obviously enjoyed the angst-ridden repartee. Whether it was familiar to them or not, there was no lack of laughter as the slob and the neat-freak escalate their verbal battles.

When the linguini settles, things gradually return to near normal but with some new perspectives. As an exiting Felix declares, “Marriage may come and go but the game must go on.”

After a half century of laughs so, it seems, must “The Odd Couple.”

“THE ODD COUPLE” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.