While one may not want to be Lost in Yonkers with Neil Simon's dour grandmother from his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning play, you will want to get lost in the Paper Mill Playhouse's production. This production, helmed by director Michael Bloom comes to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn by way of the Cleveland Playhouse and the Jupiter Playhouse in Florida. It is a talented cast of mainly new faces, with the exception Rosemary Prinz best known for her stints on soap operas, mainly a twelve year run as Penny Baker on As The World Turns. From the moment the audience walks into the grand Paper Mill, possessor of one of the largest regional theatre stages and sees scenic designer Michael Schweikhardt's beautiful period set, they are instantly transported back to Yonkers, circa 1942.
Once the audience is transported back in time, they are introduced to two young brothers, Arty and Jay. Their father, Eddie, has brought them to their Grandmother's home, above her soda fountain shop, for inspection, in the hopes that she will allow them to live with her. Eddie must work off his debts to a loan shark, incurred from the care of his late wife's illness. Much to the boys' and Grandma Kurnitz's consternation, Grandma Kurnitz allows Arty and Jay to live with her, thus they are thrust into an alien and uncomfortable new world. Now with their father gone, they are left to work hard at the soda fountain, under the watchful eye of their austere grandmother, act as confidantes to their intellectually challenged aunt Bella, become engulfed in the unsavory activities of their hoodlum uncle Louie and laugh at their asthmatic aunt Gert, who cannot finish a sentence without lowering her voice a few octaves. Both drama and comedy are a part of the brothers' lives.
As the grandmother with a heart of steel, who buried a husband and two young children, Rosemary Prinz looks the part, but has a disarming sweetness and with her thick accent, she stops the show. As Arty and Jay, who get some of Neil Simon's signature, shtick laden lines, Maxwell Beer and Alex Wyse elicit great responses from the audience, although Alex Wyse's Brooklynese slips into a sort of exaggerated hybrid New England accent every so often. Also leading the cast is Sara Surrey as the unstable Bella. Bella is not exactly sure what she wants, but knows she wants to get out from under her mother's oppressive regime. Sara Surrey's role of Bella is closely connected to its originator, Mercedes Ruehl, who immortalized her portrayal on film. Other famous Bellas on have included Lucie Arnaz and Jane Kaczmarek, but Ms. Surrey makes the role her own and does a fine job, showing Bella's yearning and as with Ms. Prinz, she strips the role of its sentimentality making her performance believable. Rounding out the cast are John Plumpis as Eddie, J. Anthony Crane, channeling Richard Dreyfus as Louie and Patricia Buckley as Gert. John Plumpis is especially effective when utilizing nervousness when he speaks of his mother. He gains the audience's sympathy as he tells his sons about the debt he incurred while trying to give their mother the best care. Best of all is Patricia Buckley as Gert, using what is effectively a cameo role and turning it into a very authentic, brilliant performance. Moreover, the cast looks great in their 1940s period costumes, designed by David Kay Mickelsen. Lost In Yonkers is a Simon classic and the company most definitely breathes new life into it.
Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon With Rosemary Prinz Plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse, through March 14th 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041 For Tickets, $25-92, Dial 973.376.4343
Photo: Lost in Yonkers courtesy of Cleveland Play House. From Left to Right: Alex Wyse (Jay); Maxwell Beer (Arty); and Sara Surrey (Bella). Photo by Peter Jennings.