Studio Players begins its 2017-18 season by diving into the heart of pain and loneliness with its production of Neil Simon’s classic “Lost in Yonkers.”
Set in 1942 New York, the play is set in the home of the Kurnitzes, a Jewish family who emigrated from Germany decades earlier. The grown children — and grandchildren — of steely matriarch Grandma struggle with family dysfunction, coming of age, independence versus codependence, and financial and emotional threats to their safety. Meanwhile, a war is starting against people who want to kill everyone like them.
In a play laced with redemptive moments of humor and grace, director Paul Thomas and an astute cast of veterans and newcomers bring this heavy-hitting play to life with nuanced performances.
The plot hinges on the arrival of Jay and Arty, the 15- and 13-year-old sons of Eddie, a widower who is so indebted to a dangerous loan shark for his late wife’s cancer treatment that he has to take a job on the road for a whole year to pay him back or face lethal consequences.
Daniel Baesler and Blake Cegelka deliver charming performances, complete with New York accents, as the youngsters who bravely face the prospect of living in the sterile, totalitarian regime of Grandma’s house, where meticulous order is kept with fear and cruelty.
Piercing the fabric of that fear is their excitable aunt Bella, who has an intellectual disability that proves to be a redemptive blessing to her family. Her childlike demeanor and open heart, and her penchant for saying things out loud that others know to keep quiet, is what forces the family toward catharsis. Stephanie Pistello’s endearing Bella might be naïve and forgetful, but she is brave and strong in ways her strict mother might never (although perhaps eventually does) understand or appreciate.
Ben Tuttle and Sam Hicks engagingly play Eddie and Louie, respectively, as brothers who could not be more different. Self-confessed “crybaby” Eddie isn’t really a crybaby, but normal sensitivity and the desire for affection and approval is seen as a weakness by his emotionally distant mother, whose cruelty is motivated in part by the numbness of her own sorrow combined with a harsh sense of duty to make her children strong at all costs. Louie, unlike Eddie, learned that lesson: He became a “bag man” for the mafia, a glorified thief unafraid to face danger. Tuttle’s beleaguered determination as Eddie is a strong foil to Louie’s devil-may-care swagger.
The knot at the center of this family’s long-term emotional tangles is Grandma, played with impressive gravitas and sensitivity by Julianne Pogue. She has the difficult task of creating a character whose tyrannical coldness and cruelty is both a family legacy to avoid and an inevitability they each brace against in different ways. Pogue’s performance is a master class of character study. Her Grandma is indeed dominant and terrifying, but she reigns with quiet tension, with furtive looks of disapproval or a tutting, agitated gesture of dismissal. There is something almost graceful about the way she wields her austerity; we see bits of her humanity stirring beneath her smooth veneer. And the closer you look, the more you see her own paralyzing heartbreak beneath the surface, so that by the play’s end, Grandma’s subtle surrender to her children’s needs for approval is a powerful and stirring catharsis.
The play welcomes humorous moments, but its greatest reward is as a study of difficult people trying to love other difficult people — and succeeding and failing in significant ways.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.