Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Lost in Yonkers

John Collins in Yonkers (photo credit: Mike Heffernan)

A Pulitzer-prize winner arrives in the Capital
by Jim Murchison

There is no arguing that Neil Simon is one of America’s most successful playwrights. Some underestimate his craftsmanship and consider him too formulaic. His one-liners are so perfectly set up that one sometimes underestimates the power of his storytelling. Lost in Yonkers is a Tony Award winner and a Pulitzer Prize play because its themes of family dysfunction and its characters' world-weary struggle to overcome life’s adversity resonate in the minds and hearts of everyone in the audience.
The Ottawa Little Theatre is Canada’s oldest community theatre company because it is not afraid to make choices that challenge its actors and its audiences. Neil Simon’s characters are not always easy to capture, even though laughs are a guaranteed by-product if your timing is good. I overheard the Coat Check person telling a patron that last night’s opening met with a standing ovation so I anticipated a good night.

The second act was particularly powerful.

The show last night was quite good although a bit more time with a dialect coach might have given more of a New York working-class feel to it. Chantale Plante’s direction seemed solid but overall I think there was a bit of opening night rebound. Oddly enough, I believe that it is more difficult to perform after a great night or a fantastic review than a poor one. The audience response from the night before still rings in your ears. You almost expect the same reactions in the same places, and you feel a little jolted when the response is a little less than it was before. To the credit of the cast, they found their way and the show was good. The second act was particularly powerful.

The curtain rose on Paul Gardner’s set: a perfect representation of an obsessive compulsive grandmother’s meticulous attention to detail. Doilies neatly spread on the plush couch hint that this is a home not used to entertaining many visitors. Two young boys; 15 year old Jay (Thomas Nyhuus) and his 13 year old brother Arty (Ven Djukic) anxiously sit on the sofa like prisoners awaiting a stay of execution. The young men talk about their mother’s recent funeral and tell stories about their grandmother as if they were telling ghost stories around a camp fire. They are frightened and fearful of her icy touch and cold heart and recall that she thrusts her cane like a musketeer wields a scimitar.
The boys' father Eddie (Bob Hicks) is nervously holding court with his mother and periodically checking to see that his sons are perfectly presentable. Something is definitely up. The boys will need to stay with their grandmother so that Eddie can hit the road to pay back the money he needed to borrow for the drugs to make his wife’s final battle with cancer bearable. Eddie’s sister Bella (Laurie Batstone) is intellectually challenged, and lives and works with mother in her shop. Going to the movies is her only refuge from her mother’s control.  In many ways, however she is the wisest of all because she sees the true strength and weaknesses of the family with the intuition, honesty and understanding of a child. Batstone’s performance belongs on any stage anywhere and with any fine performance, the other actors can’t help but be even better when they work with her.

Grandma's (Charlotte Stewart) reputation precedes her entrance. The family speaks of her tough, cold reputation long before we meet her. The thud of her cane announces her entrance 5 seconds before we see her. She has been forced to be tough by the hard circumstance of her Jewish German heritage and has taught  her children the same toughness. This  has caused much pain in the family  and left a great many unhealed wounds.

Grandma’s other children are Louie (John Collins) and Gert (Tara Berish). Louie is both a black sheep and a hero to the family. He is utterly charming and at the same time he is involved in suspicious, shady undertakings. Gert, on the other hand, is so timid she can barely speak a good deal of the time and when she does, she can’t get through a sentence in a single breath. The way she does speak is quite a comic experience in itself.

Monica Browness and Renee Dupuis-Leon did a wonderful job of catching the 1942 period in costumes and David Magladry did another fine lighting job. The use of backstage lighting and screens to enhance Eddy’s letters home and the way that a warm light would rest on a character’s reaction after the other lights had faded was particularly effective.

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