LIVING with your grandmother while your father is away working can be very enjoyable for teenagers. But that is not the case for two brothers in American playwright Neil Simon’s comedy Lost in Yonkers.
Grandma Kurnitz had a troubled childhood as a member of a Jewish family in Germany in the early 20th century and after her marriage persuaded her husband to migrate to the US. But the harshness of the treatment she received in her homeland has made her intolerant of what she sees as weaknesses in her children and grandchildren. And while she is blunt in her criticisms, the writer gives an engaging mixture of laughter and melancholy to the reactions of those around her.
Neil Simon won several national best play awards when Lost in Yonkers premiered in New York in 1991, including the Pulitzer Prize. While he was renowned for the often slapstick humour of most of his works from the time he started writing in the 1950s, this one had very down-to-earth people.
Maitland Repertory Theatre is staging the play for a three-week season at its theatre from September 26. And, while it was chosen for the company’s 2018 season almost a year ago, the timing is significant. Simon died at age 91 on August 26 this year, so this production is a tribute to him as the writer of more than 50 audience-pleasing plays.
The show’s director, Leilani Boughton, made an interesting choice when casting the two brothers, Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Jay, who insists that people see him as 15½, rather than just 15, is played by Gabrielle Johns, and Arty, 13, by Ashley Davidson. The boys are onstage for most of the play’s running time of more than two hours, and Leilani was impressed by the auditions of Gabrielle and Ashley. She said that dressed in male clothes, the pair very much bring out the teenage nature of the brothers.
Ashley, 15, sees Arty as fun-loving and a bit of a clown, but decidedly honest.
The play is set in Yonkers, a large suburb of New York, in 1942, just after the US became involved in World War II. The boys’ mother has died and their father, Eddie, played by Matt Scoles, who operates a scrap-iron business, leaves them with his stern mother, Grandma Kurnitz (Helen Comber), while he moves around the country buying iron to help pay his wife’s medical bills.
The other family members are his protective sister, Bella (Jamahla Barron), conman brother Louis (Campbell Knox), and another sister, Gert (Aimee Cavanagh), who is scared of her mother.
Lost in Yonkers opens on September 26, at 8pm, then has 8pm shows on Friday and Saturday, until October 13, plus 2pm matinees on October 7 and 14. Tickets: $22, concession $17. Bookings: 4931 2800.