Citizen Staff Writer
“Lost in Yonkers” is Neil Simon for grown-ups. The jokes are there just as always, but so is a resolution swept up in heart-tugging emotions that require some maturity to appreciate.
Live Theatre Workshop’s production directed by Sabian Trout brings it all forward as two LTW regulars give the performances of their lives.
Holli Henderson as daffy Aunt Bella made her reputation doing big physical comedy pieces that were extremely animated and extremely funny. Time after time her characters took over the LTW stage, shook the room by the shoulders and sent everyone out into the night feeling all the better for it.
Aunt Bella does have her moments, jumping up and down on the fold-out bed in the living room, flying all over the place in a ditzy storm of Judy Holliday humor. But this time Henderson adds a powerful layer of determination, as well.
Bella may be a little slow mentally but she knows what’s right and what’s wrong. With the idealism of a child, she digs in her heels and stands up for herself when unkind circumstances have her cornered.
To be convincing, this metamorphosis takes some careful planning. Henderson gets her laughs in Act 1 as the crazy aunt nobody quite knows what to do with. But she’s also planting character seeds that will be carefully nourished through Act 2. As sinister forces converge on Bella’s stressed-out family, trying to survive in a cramped apartment over the snack shop owned by her iron-fisted mom, Bella rises like an erupting volcano.
Henderson is absolutely brilliant, first in tipping us off that her character has hidden sources of strength, then in proving those strengths are real.
Keith Wick in a smaller role as Uncle Louie, a small-time gangster in an elegant suit, has to maximize his impact time. Just when it seems like his purpose on stage is to add some Damon Runyon-like underworld color to this tense family conflict, Uncle Louie is circling that sofa bed in full-face confrontation with Bella.
Wick has also built up carefully to this moment. Uncle Louie is a tightly wound guy with a gun. Keen to spot a con, arrogant in his attitude toward the threat of other gangsters, he projects strength with an angular abruptness. Eloquence may not be his strong suit but loyalty is his best friend.
These qualities, subtly expressed at first, become the ribs of Uncle Louie’s determination. He is, after all, a man of action, not words.
Making impressive LTW debuts are two high school students – Luke Hawley and Ian Mortensen, both from Catalina Foothills High School.
Appropriately enough, they play teen brothers Jay and Arty, respectively. There is a kind of brotherly chemistry between them, and the awkwardness that comes naturally with adolescence.
The story is set in 1942, when Jay and Arty are forced to move in with their strict German grandmother (Roberta Streicher). The boys’ father Eddie (Eric Anson) is a widower forced to go on a months-long business trip selling stuff to folks in the deep South.
Grim-faced and iron-willed, Grandma refuses to honor any emotion but respect. She treats everyone with condescension and commands them to respect her. Of course, respect is not something that can be demanded. That is a part of the story, too.
Jay and Arty must share the sofa bed that stays stretched out across the stage for much of the play. Acting like goofy bothers, the boys get most of the laughs in the first act. Aunt Bella keeps popping in, too, encouraging the lads to eat the huge ice cream concoctions she loves to make.
We learn Eddie doesn’t get any respect in the family, that Grandma has a large sum of cash hidden somewhere in the apartment (or in the store downstairs), that Uncle Louie may be in trouble with the mob and that Aunt Bella has a secret boyfriend.
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Lost in Yonkers” by Neil Simon
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through March 8
Where: 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
Info: 327-4242, livetheatreworkshop.org