Yonkers and Bonkers

The question most frequently asked of a theater critic is whether a particular production was good or bad. This often is not answered simply, but requires a lengthy discussion. Actors may be deficient, while the direction is innovative; an excellent play may suffer because of a markedly inadequate presentation. Among the possible mixed scenarios, none poses more frustration than a production and play with flashes of brilliance wed to elements of mediocrity.

Last week, I discussed one of Neil Simon's "middle period" plays, Plaza Suite, with its three lame TV-sitcom acts lumped together via a common location, dated humor, and a host of cliched characters. Now Simon reappears in his most recent incarnation as autobiographer and darkly comedic dramatist, earning the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and similar accolades for the sometimes remarkable Lost in Yonkers.

Losing the cliches but retaining the thin premise and candy-coated ending, Simon sculpts his disturbing saga around Grandma Kurnitz, an aging matriarch carved from German steel and seemingly devoid of human emotion. Her own offspring compare kissing her to "putting your lips around a wrinkled ice cube." Into her dysfunctional home arrive her adolescent grandsons Jay and Arty, whose mother has recently died of cancer, causing weak-kneed Eddie - the boys' Dad, Grandma's son - to seek funds from a loan shark. The only way Eddie can repay the loan during these war-torn years is by selling scrap iron in the Deep South; while he works, he must leave his sons with the grandmother they barely know and genuinely fear.

But the bitter old woman, who swings a cane like a bayonnet and forbids talking, noise, games, and toys, doesn't live alone. Her daughter, a retarded woman-child named Bella, serves Grandma faithfully but secretly dreams of escape. Further aggravating the homestead are Grandma's other damaged progeny - Uncle Louie, an edgy bag man hiding from the mob, and Aunt Gert, who has such trouble breathing in her mother's presence that she forces one half of a sentence out, only to suck the other half back in. For ten long months, Jay and Arty must endure, and somehow thrive, in this alien environment, because it's all they have.

Simon gives his unique characters convincing motives, and effectively conveys their inner agonies, at the same time managing to mine humor from their bleak lives. He also writes two of the most effective scenes ever mounted on a stage, as Bella and Grandma confront each other and the truths hidden in their hearts.

Still there's something missing. A play so heartily honored invites comparisons with Shaw or Pinter, Williams or Albee, and this one doesn't stand the test. Simon, clearly evolved from his Plaza Suite days, drags along certain damaging habits, such as a one-note theme, easy gags, and an idealized resolution to tragic situations. Louie finds redemption in the army, Bella accepts her lot, and Grandma turns into a warm but wounded soul. With such powerful personalities and potentials for conflict, I felt cheated by the playwright's need to portray life as a happily-ever-after affair.

The flawless cast and crew, most of whom were drawn from the Broadway production, transcend the piece. Set, lighting, and sound perfectly complemented mood and movement in the Parker Playhouse production. Particularly outstanding as Grandma Kurnitz, Academy-Award winner Mercedes McCambridge intimidates both her family and the audience, even with sparse actions and almost no eye contact. Brooke Adams builds a believable Bella, alternately confused and adamant, juvenile and wise. Of the remainder, Alex Dezen shines as Artie, exhibiting rare comic timing and honesty for such a young actor. Director Gene Saks, who has guided seven of Simon's plays and four of his films, knows how to present both weak and strong material in the best possible light.

Equally frustrating for its memorable moments mixed with stretches of overkill, William Luce's one-woman show about Zelda Fitzgerald, The Last Flapper, goes on too well for too long. Set during the last of Zelda's frequent stays in mental hospitals - on the night she perished in a rooftop fire - the schizophrenic wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald feverishly relives her jazz-age achievements and her fall from sanity. It seems that while Zelda's writing and persona formed the basis of Fitzgerald's work, her contributions were largely ignored. Consequently Zelda, alone in her psychiatrist's office, tries to reconcile an obsessive love for "Scott" with the disquieting realization that their marriage led to her own tragedy.

The words of the piece, all penned by Zelda herself in letters, short stories, reviews, and her novel, Save Me The Waltz, match her husband's in wit and elegance. The direction of this Minorca Playhouse production, by Carbonell nominee Gail Smith Deschamps, keeps the action believable and engaging, a formidable challenge in a one-character show. But ultimately the greatest contribution comes from Ellen Beck, the skillful lone actress who makes lightning-quick transits from past to present, calm to hysteria, and from sanity to hopeless mental disarray.

This literary piece may prove overly somber for many, and overly done for most. About halfway through the play, the meat of both theme and performance have been ably presented. From then on, the same dramatic notes sound again and again, proving that even great writing requires shaving when presented live on stage.

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